Thursday, September 14, 2006

Sentimentality and the singer/songwriter

The singer/singwriter has a certain archetype in today's pop music - one person with a guitar, singing personal, confessional-sounding songs, sometimes with a back-up band, sometimes not. Between songs, the singer often tells a story that explains where he (or she) was when he wrote the song, or what inspired its writing. Often before kicking off each new song, he says "This next one's called..." And he counts to 4, starts to strum, or fumbles with a harmonica in its frame.

At a show in the SU Underground on Monday night, two artists presented variations on this form. Matt Pond, lead singer and songwriter for the band Matt Pond PA, told no stories and only provided the name to one or two of his songs. He appeared ill at ease between songs, berating an audience member not to call him "Matty" (apparently his mother calls him that) and turning down requests to play certain songs. A lyric from Pond's song "kc" perfectly encapsulate his stage presence: "There’s no way to the heart better than awkwardly." He repeatedly said "Hold please," as he and his bandmates tuned up or switched instruments, and even prefaced several tunes by saying "This is a song."

I expected a set of acoustic guitar-based tunes (based on a cover of the Pixies song "Winterlong" I heard on my undergrad college radio station), but was suprised to hear a group with two electric guitars, bass, drums, cello (!) and occasional electric keyboard. The music surged forward with a bright, pop energy akin to the Police, "Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me"-era Cure or Elvis Costello.

Only after someone requested "Since U Been Gone" and lead guitarist Brian Pearl cranked out the power-pop ballad's guitar part did Pond loosen up to take a more free-wheeling approach. He even agreed to play a few extra songs after his band members took a bathroom break. Though he seemed daunted at first by the crowd's lack of movement during songs and utter silence between, he warmed to the students as they nodded heads, shuffled feet and slowly crept closer to the stage throughout his set.

Opening act Ian Love delivered the archetypal singer/songwriter performance to a tee. "I wrote this song when I was driving across Iceland." "This is a song about my daughter." "While I'm being sentimental, this song is for my wife." Love, accompanied by another guitarist, opened the songwriter's book of his soul. Where Pond pulled away from his audience, Love was conversational. Where Pond tried to mask his imperfections ("This is a new song, so we don't really know it yet"), Love reveled in them. He frequently lifted his voice into a lilting falsetto, not afraid of cracks between registers or of landing on a slightly out-of-tune note. With his voice, swimming in reverb, over top above slowly-arcing songs based in acoustic and pedal-steel guitars, Love's recalled two artists in mainstream "alt-country" - Wilco and My Morning Jacket.

These two bands each feature a prominent frontman (Jeff Tweedy in Wilco, Jim James in MMJ) in the singer/songwriter tradition. Each band draws from country music, both the sad ballad a la "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and the knee-slapping hoedown, and inject it with more modern approaches. Tweedy adds bugs-beneath-the-skin paranoia and anomie, and James blasts the forms into orbit with unearthly falsetto, bizarre lyrics and electric guitar hystrionics. In his opening set, Love took a step toward bringing these forms back to earth.

1 comment:

Raquel Laneri said...

I love how you used the word "anomie"