CD Review of Unfamiliar Faces by Matt Costa
Recommended if you like
Jack Johnson, Mat Kearney, oatmeal
Label
Universal/Brushfire
Matt Costa:
Unfamiliar Faces

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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M
att Costa’s second full-length opens with a delicious slice of rainbow-flavored pop, “Mr. Pitiful,” that’s destined to go down as one of the best singles in the first quarter of 2008. That might sound like faint, overqualified praise, but it isn’t – “Mr. Pitiful” is a terrific song and a no-brainer choice for a leadoff single.

And here’s the problem: Not only is it 10,000 leagues better than anything else on Unfamiliar Faces, it doesn’t even sound like most of the other songs on the record.

Don’t misunderstand – it isn’t like Costa affects some sort of weird vocal tic on the song; he still sounds like Matt Costa. It’s that “Mr. Pitiful,” unlike the rest of the record, actually has a tempo, varied instrumentation, and a hook. Immediately after the closing notes fade, Costa makes like his label’s boss, Jack Johnson, and sails off into the beige granola ether. It’s a nasty trick. For a couple of minutes, the album fools you into thinking that Johnson might be another Dave Matthews – dishwater-dull musician, savvy label boss – but sadly, Johnson seems to think he hasn’t done a good enough job of cornering the market on knit-capped, scruffy-bearded acoustic balladry.

Costa’s heart is certainly in the right place. He’s clearly got a thing for Beatlesque pop, and occasionally busts out with the unorthodox chord change to prove it, but his songwriting palette is too limited to achieve the desired effect – even when he puts a little elbow grease into his arrangements, he neglects to lift the songs out of their drab mid-tempo sludge. Much like your average Jack Johnson record, Unfamiliar Faces often feels like a long sunset campfire – on a beach where there are no waves, there’s nothing on the landscape, and nobody has any good drugs, or even so much as a beer. And there’s a guy with a guitar who simply will not shut his goddamn yap.

And the lyrics? Eh. They’re occasionally clever, but it’s hard not to be frustrated with an album that includes free-verse stoner lines like “You lie / But I know, ‘cause I’ve got cigarette eyes.” Don’t bother asking yourself what it means, because it doesn’t mean anything; it’s just a smooth-sounding succession of consonants and vowels – uttered in Costa’s ridiculous fake English accent. Making records is fun and easy, la la la.

Annoying quirks (and lack thereof) aside, Unfamiliar Faces does have its moments. “Lilacs” is a sweetly memorable ballad, “Emergency Call” has a pleasant dash of rock oomph, and closer “Miss Magnolia,” even if it’s a total rip of Mungo Jerry’s “In the Summertime,” is no less enjoyable for the ripping. The whole thing probably sounds great if you’re blasting it from your Jeep while driving down the boardwalk – just don’t expect it to hold up under scrutiny, or reveal anything after further listens. And for God’s sake, don’t spend more than $10 on it.

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