It takes a cold heart and a degree of self-importance to dismiss Matt & Kim offhand as childish and naïve. There is no doubt that many do. There is undeniably an air of youthful enthusiasm to their made-for-radio, synth-pop – with emphasis on the ‘pop’. But scratch beneath the surface and you unearth a real craft for imaginative song structuring. And, as the Brooklyn art-school duo hone their talent, a degree of – wait for it – enlightened lyricism is even starting to prevail.
Their third album ‘Sidewalks’ was released at the end of 2010 in the US but for the well-behaved non-file-sharers out there it officially hits UK shelves at the end of March. Like its 2009 predecessor ‘Plans’ the new full-length is incredibly polished, yet producers Ben Allen and Oliver Straus preserve some of the lo-fi urgency that shot the outfit into the billboard charts.
‘Sidewalks’ is very much an album of two halves. Die-hard fans of Matt & Kim’s previous work will be comforted to hear the familiar upbeat innocence which, musically at least, dominates the first half of the album. Kim Schifino’s exuberant percussion is prominent as ever yet this is far from being ‘more of the same’ with quasi hip-hop rhythms lending a new ‘freshness’ to their work.
Midway through this ten-track slice of pop, proceedings take a slightly more minimalist turn on ‘Where You’re Coming From’. Low on instrumentation and simple in structure the track shows a new level of maturity from this likable duo. It is a pattern that peppers the rest of the album, most notably on ‘Northeast’ which would be unlikely to appear on either of the outfit’s previous releases.
There is, however much in Matt Johnson’s lyrics which point to compromise. On the whole the music may be uplifting but the message is more contemplative and at times regretful. Themes focus heavily on strained relationships and resentment towards life on the road. On ‘AM/FM’ the lines “meet after dark and just follow me, treads been worn away, wrong side of the street” wouldn’t feel out of place in a Springsteen notebook. Though the pace and delivery remains urgent and vivid, the words reveal undoubted melancholy – “we tore the walls out, in this old bedroom of your house,” says Johnson on ‘Where You’re Coming From’, “to make room for dreams”.
There are the obligatory sure-fire hits and they are undoubtedly good – ‘Camera’s’ is a stand-out track which in a sense captures the essence of the entire album in three lines: “pound my steering wheel, we yell to the windshield, I’m finally home”. Yet it isn’t all deep and serious, ‘Good for Great’ could slot easily into any of the acts previous collections with lines like: “we sing along though the notes are wrong, we sing along through night and dawn”. It is, however, the understated tracks that triumph, making this the New Yorkers’ strongest release to date.
Overall ‘Sidewalks’ is an unexpectedly honest and personal affair. Sadly it is hard to shake the feeling that the chirpy duo have cheated themselves slightly – the desire to keep things low-key almost wiped out by the fear of upsetting the core support. You feel that anybody who really gets the outfit must surely appreciate each piece of work for its own merits. The result is that the album feels disjointed in places but equally whets the appetite for an exciting new direction. Matt & Kim are growing up. That is not necessarily a good or a bad thing.
‘Sidewalks’ is out in the UK on 28th of March via Different Records and is available in all the very best record stores. Take your pick.
Post by Kenny the elder statesman.