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Indie-punk duo expands its upbeat sound on ‘Sidewalks’

Chris Collum | Tuesday, November 16, 2010

3 out of 4 Shamrocks

Matt & Kim, a Brooklyn-based duo composed of Matt Johnson on vocals and keyboards and Kim Schifino on drums and vocals, has been making catchy, lo-fi synth-punk for more than five years. However, very few had heard of the band prior to its hit song “Daylight” being featured in a Bacardi commercial last summer.

“Daylight” was the lead single from “Grand,” which was the band’s second and breakthrough album. “Grand” saw the duo receive critical praise for tightening its “do it yourself” sound without compromising its  fast-paced raw nature.

On “Sidewalks,” the band’s latest album released Nov. 2, Matt & Kim hired semi-legendary hip-hop and indie producer, recorder and studio juggernaut Ben Allen, whose past credits include Gnarls Barkley’s “St. Elsewhere” and Animal Collective’s “Merriweather Post Pavilion,” among other critically-acclaimed albums. While it might be unfair to Johnson and Schifino to credit Allen with singlehandedly broadening and improving upon the duo’s blitz-like style, Allen’s influence can certainly be heard in songs such as “Cameras,” the album’s first single, which features a horn section, hip-hop samples and murky electronic noises — three things one would not expect to hear on a Matt & Kim record.

Beyond diversifying the band’s sound, Allen manages to amplify the best aspects of Matt & Kim’s music: Johnson’s huge vocal hooks and bouncy synthesizer riffs, combined with Schifino’s rapid-fire percussive style. Album opener “Block for Block” is classic Matt & Kim — but with a more sophisticated feel.

This does result in the duo losing some of the “amateur charm” that might have previously been a large part of their appeal, but losing some of its charm at the expense of far superior songs is not a bad trade-off at all.

Because of this, “Sidewalks” also has a “bigger” feel to it — a stark contrast with some of their previous material that sounds as if it may well have been recorded in a ten-by-ten foot bedroom. Mid-tempo slow-burner “Good for Great” showcases this perfectly. That song combines one of Johnson’s signature floating keyboard riffs with a huge string sample, reverb-drenched vocals and Schifino’s best work behind the drums yet.

Johnson’s lyrics echo this more open sound. Matt & Kim’s songs previously have been colorful collages of life in Brooklyn in one’s 20s. “Sidewalks” sees Johnson adopting a more pensive, contemplative mood at times, such as in the aforementioned “Good for Great.” “So many books that I didn’t read / But there’s so much air I chose to breathe / How about the colors that I’ve seen? / So I’ll leave these pages in the trees,” Johnson sings in the chorus.

This new lyrical approach is the one less-than-appealing part of the band’s new sound. The lyrics sometimes feel hollow and insincere when juxtaposed with the bright musical approach.

However, there is still room for blissful moments amid Johnson’s more downcast ruminations, such as in the album’s penultimate track “Silver Tiles,” which was actually the first song the band ever wrote as a duo. It had never been featured on an album before now.

The final aspect of Matt & Kim’s newfound expansive sheen is that Johnson’s vocals have changed slightly from their previously nasal and jittery qualities. He sounds more confident and much more willing to go for the soaring melody as opposed to more rapid-fire wordplay. One would never have thought it likely given their previous work, but Johnson has developed a genuinely good singing voice, not just an interesting one. That being said, however, he still retains some of his old, more raw singing style on songs such as “Ice Melts,” the album’s closing track.

With the help of Ben Allen’s studio finesse, Matt & Kim have done some major reinventing on “Sidewalks” with almost entirely positive results. The band manages to create a diverse set of 10 songs, something it previously had not really done. On “Grand” all the songs seemed to sound the same starting around track six; on “Sidewalks,” each song has its own distinctive sound.

For a group that made its name mostly through simplistic, fast-paced songs, hiring a new producer and evolving stylistically was risky. Matt & Kim, however, pull the whole thing off with ease, and come out sounding much better than before. Old fans should be pleased, and plenty of new fans should come around as well. “Sidewalks” is Matt & Kim’s best album to date and a step in a new, more diverse direction for the band.