Review: matt pond PA’s “The Dark Leaves”

Apr 20, 2010 5:11pm

Although, currently New York based, the indie rock band matt pond PA get their name from their original state of origin, Pennsylvania.  As you may have guessed, their centerpiece is leader, Matthew Pond.  “The Dark Leaves” is the band’s seventh album.  Compared with their last two records in particular, it’s a moody and subdued collection.  Perhaps it doesn’t set a new benchmark like “Several Arrows Later,” or continue to stoke the fire like “Last Light,” but in its own, mild-mannered, quiet sort of way, it shares its predecessors' gifts.  It’s the kind of record that demands your focused attention.  Only with deep, concentrated listening are its true charms realized.  It’s only ten tracks and it clocks in at just under forty minutes, so it goes by quickly as well.  Brevity and subtlety give the illusion of slightness, but this record has surprising depth.  “Starting” appropriately sets off the album as a quietly, understated mid-tempo strummer.  It doesn’t really take off until the chorus, but even at his most deadpan, Pond shows he can hold up well next to his peers.  His delivery isn’t as polarizing as Ben Gibbard from Death Cab For Cutie and he doesn’t seem as bland and faceless as Rogue Wave’s Zach Rogue.  (On a separate note, this album also isn’t as over-produced and shiny as Rogue Wave’s most recent album, “Permalight.”)  Yes, Matthew Pond has a friendly very conversational tone to his songs. This quality draws you in and makes you want to hear his every word.  When he sings, “Less, talk, more arms, more legs, more swinging back and forth. Lights on, lights off, I know that I want to be adored. First hips, than knees than feet, don’t think any more,” you wonder if he’s describing two ravenously entangled lovers or giving instructions to a dance party.  Nevertheless, there’s a quiet confidence to his ambiguity. “Running Wild” picks up the pace a little, but then again, it also sounds like something which would serve as the backdrop to some sort of orchestral hoedown. Perhaps it would’ve benefitted from a fuzzy layer of electric guitar, but again, it quietly drifts and lifts at its own, well-mannered pace.  “Specks” begins with a hushed murmur of drifting notes, before Pond comes in with a slightly twangy melody celebrating the joys of the day.  This borders somewhere between old-time-y folk, indie rock and alt-country.  It’s a feel-good song while Pond sings positively, “I believe in you and me and everything we’ll ever see and do.”  It’s likeable.  Perhaps it lacks edge, but it is well put together.  “Remains” is by far the best song on the record and worthy of repeated, concentrated listens.  It is among the finest the members of matt pond PA have ever put on record.  Matching the soul-searching earnestness of Nada Surf’s recent work, Pond sings, “I can’t remember which movie taught me purpose. / I can’t remember which movie taught me pain.”  The guitars swell up in an anthem-like fashion and you get the feeling that this track simply demands to be used in the next “Garden State” or “(500) Days Of Summer.” It’s the kind of universally gripping track which holds you by your soul and somehow encapsulates the exhilaration of love and the defeat of heartbreak all in one giant swoop.  No doubt this is a breakup song with the lyrics, “This is not how I want to be forgotten. / This is not how I want to leave remains.”  But at the same time, the guitars seemingly celebrate the death of this love.  This track wallows in its own sadness and yet its tone lets you know that it all was a worthwhile experience.  This is definitely a track worth seeking out.  “Sparrows” is the kind of acoustic gem, Pond could probably make in his sleep, but at the same time, this is what makes it immediately seem familiar.  It’s a highlight which wouldn’t have sounded out of place on “Several Arrows Later.”   “Brooklyn Fawn” fades in softly, again showcasing a vaguely countrified sound.  The lyrics mention “Brooklyn stars.”  Perhaps this track is meant as a sequel to a track of that name on the previously mentioned “Several Arrows Later.”  This comes off as a campfire meditation on sleep, stars, leaves and wounded deer. Perhaps it’s all deeply symbolic, but again, the beauty of its subtlety and ambiguity will go over the heads of casual listeners.  The track is unassuming and without honed ears, it is likely to fade into the background. “Ruins” is given real lift by a banged out piano riff, a peppy beat and a slightly spiky guitar-line.  It makes this track a slick wake-up call and another highlight.  Again, the breakup theme reveals itself in the lyrics, “I got hit with the handle when you split through my coat. / Now I’m searching through empty pockets. / They fill me up with your ghost.” Pond is so unassuming that he and his band never get the credit they deserve for crafting smart, well-written songs about love and loss.  You immediately can feel the pain in those words. “Winter Fawn” gives us our second deer-themed song in a three track span.  This is a moodier, superior track to its companion, because it’s sonically more sprawling.  Pond and his band-mate Chris Hansen produced and mixed this record quite well and here they drench themselves in the echo-driven depths of the sonic wilderness while still maintaining a driving folk core.  It’s quite a listen, especially turned up on a set of decent headphones. “The Dark Leaves Theme” is less morose in sonic tone than its title would suggest, again bringing to mind a more restrained answer to Pond’s earlier work.  Again, there’s a strong, drained feeling when he sings, “Life kills me.”  The album closes with the ironically titled, “First Song,” a top-notch strummer which bounces repeatedly from a cathartic, poetic ballad to a spirited near-waltz.   It’s a drumless, string-assisted number which comes and goes in a mere two minutes and thirty six seconds.  Long time fans may be taken aback by this album’s somber tone.  Those familiar will know that matt pond PA can be a much more lively band. A good musical ensemble knows that for every mood there is an appropriate time and place.  This record is no doubt designed to be more withdrawn.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  No doubt because of its tone, it will be underestimated and undervalued.  That is a mistake.  Not every record needs to scream to make an impression.  Sometimes a gentler approach is necessary. While this isn’t an album you can absorb in one mere listen, it is still a worthy, beautiful record. 

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