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January 24, 2003

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Matt Pond PA

The Nature of Maps

Polyvinyl Records

Genres are a constant problem for those who write about music. The problem isn't necessarily with those bands that try to straddle several different genres--"we're a little alt-country, a little no-wave, and with a dub reggae-influenced rhythm section"--so much as it's a problem for those bands that seem to consistently fall in an area right between genres. Matt Pond PA is such a band. Perhaps they're EMO, but they don't have the usual EMO flourishes--the guitar riffs are more complex, there are no loud-quiet dynamics, and the pop touches aren't as noticeable. Perhaps they're slowcore, but their sound is a bit more lush, what with the French horn and the cello, than that designation might lead you to believe. Perhaps they're indie rock, but what does that really tell you? I suspect you know that a whole lot of bands, with a whole lot of different sounds, are part of the constellation of indie rock.

It's no good explaining what Matt Pond PA does not sound like. What it does sound like is a particularly rich and particularly sad brand of pop music. Every song on The Nature of Maps features the almost overbearing power of Eve Miller's cello, which (almost) always manages to sound vaguely like a crying friend. Guitarist and lead singer Matt Pond also doesn't appear to know any traditional power chords--or if he does, he's not sharing them with the rest of us. The resulting album is a soundtrack for those who are just barely holding it together. "No More" and "The Party" are both sad, slow songs with slyly embittered lyrics; "Summer is Coming" might be the most depressing song ever written about summer, with its opening warnings about avoiding heat and high water and its refrain about unrequited love: "all we are is just friends." "A Well of Tires" and "A Million Middle Fingers" probably describe themselves as well as I ever could. Even the mid-tempo tracks "Fairlee" and "New Kehoe NJ" are built around Pond's voice, which pulls off the neat trick of sounding like an echo of itself, and might just (read: probably will) bring you down. Still, the songs aren't without some glimmer of hope: the music itself, with its dense textures of strings, guitar, and piano, reminds us that there's something cool about being depressed, since there's almost always something to be depressed about. It's a fitfully rewarding album, but one that probably requires an appropriate accompanying mood.

Iron and Wine

The Creek Drank the Cradle

Sub Pop Records

I think sometimes about the dual nature of Americana. We have, on the one hand, wholesome pictures of town squares, Fourth of July parades, weathered barns, and Model Ts, the kind that immediately come to mind when asked to envision something traditional or historical. We have, on the other hand, those inescapably macabre features of our culture as well. Cormac McCarthy's Child of God was a distinctly American book, and it was about a necrophiliac roaming the hills of Tennessee. Night of the Hunter was a distinctly American movie (even though its director was English) and the best parts of it were purposefully strange, like the shot of Robert Mitchum's backwoods preacher following two children rafting down a river (the eerie effect came from putting a midget on a horse and then backlighting the whole scene). Somewhere in our past, a literal reading of the Old Testament merged with a healthy dose of inbreeding to produce spare, ominous people telling us spare, ominous stories. One side effect of our post-O Brother Where Art Thou fascination with our cultural roots is that we're again noticing that much of our best music and literature derives from tribes of spooky weirdoes.

Sam Beam, who records as Iron and Wine, may not have been born into this tradition (he's from Miami) but he's certainly absorbed it well. His first CD, The Creek Drank the Cradle was recorded at his home, with Beam doing all the vocals and guitar work. The results owe more than a little to Appalachia, both musically and lyrically. Beam's arrangements consist solely of cleanly picked and overlapping guitar lines, the sort usually heard emanating from your great-grandfather's Victrola. His lyrics read like a modern take on backwoods poetry: "And love is the scene I render when you catch me wide awake / and love is the dream you enter though I shake and shake and shake you," he sings on the opening "Lion's Mane." Later tracks are even more explicit. "Upward Over the Mountain" offers a rather distinct reminiscence of family life: "Mother remember the night that the dog had her pups in the pantry / blood on the floor and fleas on their paws and you cried 'till the morning." The lyrical content is certainly gentler than most of our folk music canon, but the influences are obvious nonetheless.

That Beam can evoke the whole tradition so well--the pseudo-biblical language, the promise of hope in the face of despair, the elegies for love long gone--says quite a bit about his album. He knows that his range as a musician is fairly limited--he never stretches his voice above a whisper and he never (thank God) plugs in his guitar or brings in a rowdy Nashville backing band. His range, however, sets up an ironic greatest strength-and-weakness point; the album is moving because of its simplicity, but the eleven songs on it are so similar to one another that only three or four manage to really stand out. After hearing a trio of good songs on the first half--the above-mentioned "Lion's Mane," "Upward Over the Mountain," and "Promising Light" - the second half of the album, regrettably, doesn't sink in. That problem aside, The Creek Drank the Cradle is a nice contemporary gloss on Americana, weirdness and all.