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Matt Costa - Unfamiliar Faces Print E-mail
Tuesday, 01 April 2008
ImageSelf awareness might be the ultimate end goal of psychoanalysis, but for songwriters it’s not always a good thing. In fact, the pop music canon is littered with artists who created great art because, not in spite of, their lack of insight into their own personal oddness. Consider Daniel Johnston or Wesley Willis. Sure, both had some mental health issues to deal with, but there’s little denying that their songwriting succeeded mostly because they didn’t realize that writing songs about superheroes and McDonalds was outside of the range of normal songwriting topics. Take Ol’ Dirty Bastard, a man whose outrageously oversized persona couldn’t have been contrived, or think of the Shaggs, the ‘60s sister trio who played out of tune and wrote songs about their pets. These are artists who simply can’t help but make music that completely reflects every odd facet of their personalities, and their work is utterly fascinating because of it. But sometimes a lack of self awareness is a bad thing for artists. Sometimes it results in their not realizing that their sincerest sentiments are trite clichés. Sometimes it results in albums like Matt Costa’s Unfamiliar Faces. For an ostensibly talented and confident musician, Matt Costa sure projects the profile of an insecure whiner, a petty 25-year-old with a soft baritone and a trunk full of readymade melodies. A former pro skateboarder and a newly signed artist on Jack Johnson’s Brushfire label, he seems poised for a breakthrough, his music falling somewhere between the folk-pop of his boss and the adult contemporary of James Blunt, and his videos already turning up on VH1. But while his tunes are immediate in their appeal, full of winning melodies and delivered in a familiarly nasal croon, Costa comes across as the guy who sees himself as the loveable loser despite all evidence that he’s a normally well-adjusted young man with a world of talent. Unfamiliar Faces, therefore, is a study in using overstatement to say nothing at all.

Though he crafted an undeniably solid clip-clopping piano hook on lead single “Mr. Pitiful,” he seems just a bit too smug as the wounded narrator, a man scolding his affluent friend for his arrogance and perceived slights. “Please come down from that cloud that you’re sitting on,” he coos over joyfully bounding piano chords, “I don’t expect you to admit that you’re wrong.” This theme of rejection by friends returns two songs later on “Never Looking Back,” a Neil Young-styled acoustic ballad whose simple allure is anchored to an also-ran melody and pouting child lyrics. “I know it happens all the time,” he sighs incredulously, “But they didn’t have my back.” In this case, he has no choice but to leave them behind, something he clearly can’t do with his less platonic relationships.

Suggesting that he’s the obsessive type, the title track is a wistfully Beatlesque ditty where Costa worries about what his lover does when he’s not around, afraid that she’s secretly intimate with “unfamiliar faces.” Taking a turn toward French pop, “Vienna” is a heartbroken travelogue where Costa roams the world searching for his lost lover, pleading “bring her to me” to anyone who will listen. When things aren’t going well, the most obvious solution is to threaten an impending mental breakdown. “Some say I waste my time, but normal life seems so boring,” he sings defiantly over sturdy, descending piano chords. “So I’m trying to lose my mind.” It says a lot that those lines count as some of his most clever on this outing. Most egregious is “Emergency Call,” four minutes of four chords and a litany of cringe-inducing medical metaphors. Predictably, in this case the only prescription that will save our ailing narrator is a shot of love from his girlfriend. “I need your medicine to soothe,” he pleads to his missing lover. “Pills and creams have nothing on you.”

Slightly better is Costa’s attempt at a murder ballad, with his tale of a mariner who kills his wife and carries a guilt-stricken confidence like a “heart of stone.” He even seems a little dangerous on “Cigarette Eyes,” an angry bit of power pop where he sheds his victim role and plays the aggressor, his voice turning jaded as he accuses his lover of betrayal and lies, certain that he has seen through her attempts to deceive. But despite his obvious gifts as a performer and tunesmith, Costa doesn’t do genre experiments terribly well, with “Bound” falling into woman-as-devil blues tropes and the playful mandolin and banjo runs of “Miss Magnolia” giving us a glimpse of what Mungo Jerry would have sounded like had they experimented with bluegrass. And while he has an obvious ear for melody, most of his best hooks feel like reassembled pieces of better known classic rock songs.

In the end, all of his faults would be forgivable if Costa was only self aware enough to push his insecurities to the point where they made him seem like more than the sad sack who chews your ear off about his girlfriend while you’re waiting in line at the supermarket. For someone who writes like he’s a 14-year-old suffering through his first breakup, he’s too mundane to be interesting, suggesting that he’s either not actually as neurotic as he’d have us believe or he lacks the openness to express why he feels so vulnerable. Instead, he gives us a lot of vague shades of distress wrapped in harmless pop clichés, an album full of songs that say nothing below their surface level. No doubt, the sentiments he expresses have fueled much of the best songwriting of the past 100 years, but with Costa there is no tragic or satirical undercurrent, no narrative arc that implies that he sees any more than his own perspective. No, Costa seems to be just a normal guy and a pretty average songwriter, possibly one who pities himself a bit too much and knows so much about the formulas of great pop songs that he has handcuffed himself to do anything original. Like many of the great artists who like self awareness, he has no shortage of authenticity, but as of this moment he seems to be too sincere to realize that he hasn’t yet said anything.

Despite the shortcomings in the songwriting department, Unfamiliar Faces actually sounded pretty good. The pianos are rich and resonant, the acoustic guitars sound full-bodied, and Costa’s vocals are perfectly placed in the mix. Produced by No Doubt’s Tom Dumont, it’s obvious that great care was made to balance everything and give the album a classic, 70s rock feel. But despite its classicist approach, it’s still modern and glossy, with little reverb and all the textures presented up front and clear. It will sound fantastic coming out of good floor speakers.

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