As a stopgap EP, Winter Songs will hold its own; as something for season after season, though, it's not quite that durable.
Over the past few years, people have given Matt Pond increasing amounts of attention for his songwriting, so it's a little surprising that he and his band would choose to release an EP of mostly covers. After Emblems he should be primed for a major breakout, but we'll have to wait a while longer for a proper follow-up. Winter Songs serves as good holdover, highlighting his skills as an arranger/interpreter, while letting him take a break from the lyrical duties.
The first two tracks are all Pond's, though. "Snow Day" appropriately sets the mood for this subdued seasonal disc. Tying childhood wishing to adult emotions, Pond builds a hopeful mood even as light decays and "the day goes gray to grayer". The acoustic-based song sounds like that winter evening, but the narrator uses the darkness to delineate the bright spots in the scene. Far from joyful or naive, he still embraces the pleasure of a day in, and the opportunities it brings those held together by the weather.
Aside from a couple of quality-but-forgettable instrumentals ("Fall Two" and "Winter One"), the rest of the EP consists of covers. The oddest of these comes next to last. After the group has successfully set an ashy tone, Matt Pond PA breaks into a strangely calm but immediately recognizable version of Lindsey Buckingham's "Holiday Road" (best known from its use in National Lampoon's Vacation). The music fits the disc perfectly, using acoustic plucking and slide guitar lead. The lyrics, of course, couldn't be less appropriate for the cabin-in-a-snowstorm mood we've grown accustomed to, but that's part of the joy of the song. Whether it's a narrative break for a chilly listener, or a fireside dream of sunnier days, the lyrics do work as part of a winter song.
Matt Pond PA similarly develops the three other covers. The first, Neil Young's "Winterlong" sounds like a version Young could have done, albeit a little softer and with more comfortable vocals. "I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight" keeps a driving beat and offers another wishful tune -- it's a nice tribute to Richard and Linda Thompson, but not a memorable one. Finally, we get the song that the band has been building toward -- Neutral Milk Hotel's "In an Aeroplane Over the Sea". It's the chamber version of the indie classic, given a soft treatment complete with cello. Although the lyrics are summery in nature, the track works as a nice closure to this subtle January disc.
Despite Pond's very nice original "Snow Day", the EP relies on its covers. It doesn't fall short because the covers aren't good, but because they're redundant within the confines of the album. One of the joys of hearing a track done in a new way is discovering aspects of it that had previously gone unnoticed, whether it be in tone or characterization or something completely different. Matt Pond PA proves they can perform pleasing arrangements of other artists' tunes, but they only show that they can pull out the gray side of them. It's not that the group has only one-trick (and for that matter, they do an admirable job of maintaining a strong feel throughout the disc), it's just that a collection of covers that aren't insightful or innovative doesn't quite add up to much. As a stopgap EP, Winter Songs will hold its own; as something for season after season, though, it's not quite that durable.