Second album for Bay Area pop-punk band the Matches favours pastiche over memorable tunes
Where was that band name the Matches familiar from? Not from their Epitaph debut, E. Von Dahl Killed the Locals, which sank without much of a trace, but from the cringe-worthy MC Lars slapstick-rap number "Hot Topic is Not Punk Rock". According to Wikipedia, the Matches have in fact been part of a tour sponsored by that very clothing chain (chance of truth: 65%?). Well, anyway, slogging it out as the Locals since 1997 on the San Francisco punk scene, post-name change and Epitaph signing the band seems to have found renewed energy. Nine years is a long lifetime for any band, even longer considering pop-punk's current proclivity for theatrical overstatement and whiny catharsis (don't call it emo). In response, the Matches have roped in every producer in sight (an astounding nine producers were used for their new album's 13 tracks) and go for pastiche over continuity.
Perhaps the biggest surprise, in their search for something unique, this pop-punk band find -- wait for it -- indie rock. Indie rock? Indie rock. The album opens with a strange, orchestral sea shanty in "Salty Eyes". Even stranger, it emerges as one of the album's shining moments. An easy violin accompaniment rises to a full string arrangement that's surprisingly sophisticated. Using marcato rhythms for rhythmic drive, the song comes across as a rawer Decemberists song. Unfortunately, through the rest of their genre explorations on Decomposer, the Matches fail to match this thrilling opening.
It's an amateur mistake to take variety and call it creative vision, but it seems that's what the Matches have done here. The plethora of producing talent combined with the large variety of music on offer (from screamo to indie pop) seems to indicate a band too willing to be shaped by their producer's musical ideas. To this point: you don't finish listening to the album with a strong sense of the band's identity, and even for a punk band that's a problem. The band veers from Muse impressions ("Drive") to Arctic Monkeys instrumentations ("Clumsy Heart") to pop-punk anthems ("Little Maggots") and finally to U2-style glittering guitars ("The Barber's Unhappiness").
Throughout, vocalist Shawn Harris has a theatrical voice with enough character for it to feel like a missed opportunity when it's covered in effects, or when he's screaming. The Matches aren't ones for subtlety, and the cut-up vocals of "Papercut Skin" (word-painting) and screaming desperation of "Sunburn Versus the Rhinovirus" serve their subjects in rather obvious ways. The band's lyrical proficiency is in line with its peers, but that's not to say there aren't laughable lyrics, and a few that creep under your skin. On the Mark Hoppus-produced single, "What Katie Said", the payphone is an "STD payphone", the girl is a "guestlist girl". But when the chorus of "Drive" hits and Harris screeches out, "What we know 'bout sex, we learned from alcohol... What little we know bout love / We learned from rock and roll", it's a great moment.
The music can be compelling enough, if fairly obvious, at times. "What Katie Said" could be one of the pop-punk anthems of the year, with the harder-edged soar of Story of the Year's "Anthem of Our Dying Day". But the Matches don't have the concentration to stuff their album with more than a few passing glimmers of interest. It's clear the band has ideas, and the musical chops to grab some airplay and even some indie cred, but they need to decide which direction they're heading, and stick with it. Maybe next time.