REVIEW: matt pond PA: The Nature of Maps
matt pond PA: The Nature of Maps [Polyvinyl, 2002] (mp3s)
Three words? tethered pop wonders.
It's when everything's brightest - white speckles reflecting off the glitter-lighting, laughter with friends, the reflections of faces in glasses of beer - that you become most aware of the work that sits on your desk at home. Even if the assignment is not particularly urgent, even if the file can wait, it rises like a black cloud at the back of your mind. Something that drags your feet on the dancefloor, makes your smile waver at the edges.
With The Nature of Maps, Matt Pond PA looses a dozen gold-flecked pop songs: guitars that stir over cello-swipes, chimes that quiver in airy, high-ceilinged musical rooms. Across much of the album however, is a lingering weight, some down-pulling force that prevents the tunes from reaching orbit, from reaching climax. Perhaps it's Matt Raisch's plodding basslines, Matt Pond's distant-and-muddy Robert Pollard vocals. Perhaps not. But something dogs these songs, distracting from the album's considerable charm.
The Nature of Maps opens with "Fairlee", a zesty burbler that recalls the Cure and Clarity-era Jimmy Eat World. Pond's voice beckons to the reader with a forceful earnesty: "It turns in time / reflects the light." Synths seethe and surge as the guitar-fizz builds, cellos stoking the fire. The double-tracked vox (which permeates the disc) undermines some of the song's immediacy, but the band's energy overcomes. "No More" is less successful; the group steps lazily through a midtempo haze, with whispers of something under the skin. Though there are traces of folk here - heavy-strummed guitar and whinsome lyrics in the Neutral Milk Hotel vein - the group succeeds most in upbeat-but-melancholy pop numbers. "Summer is Coming" lets its minty-syrup melody crest over fattened cello sweeps and an ambitious, confident drum-line. When the song reaches its peak, it's nearly orchestral in size, declaring across the city that "all we are is friends." "A Million Middle Fingers" is a new-wave throwback - guitarline smirking over a chirping drum-machine pep.
The album's dazzler, however, is the shimmering, fantastic "Closer," whose guitars bubble amidst sympathetic cello, a ticking staccato reassuring Pond's melodic optimism. There is an affection within the track, as if each instrument is smiling to the other and then turning skyward, determined to play out the autumn melancholy that rustles beneath the tune's warmth. Eve Miller's supporting vocals are disconnected enough that they truly flesh out the track's conclusion, giving it ribs and a spine. It's an absolute gem, and one of the year's best songs.
It's unfortunate, though, that The Nature of Maps can't consistently rise to these heights. Although there's a maturity to these pop-rock songs that allows room to grow with each subsequent listen, that niggling weight refuses to let them take flight. Ultimately Matt Pond PA has released an album of outstanding vision that isn't quite able to make its voice sing.