matt pond PA The Dark Leaves

[Altitude; 2010]

Rating: 2/5

Styles: indie folk-pop
Others: The Shins, Bon Iver

In the fall of 2007, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon retired to a cabin in the woods of Wisconsin for four months to record For Emma, Forever Ago. Around the same time, Brooklyn’s matt pond PA secured a comparable arrangement in the Hudson Valley area of upstate New York to record their new album, The Dark Leaves . The resulting albums couldn’t be any more different. Vernon recorded most of For Emma, Forever Ago in isolation, and its solitary themes of heartrending despair were magnified by the lonesome surroundings in which it gestated. Pond, on the other hand, took his producer Chris Hansen along, and their ensuing album is full of lush arrangements and benign sound treatments that ultimately feel watered-down by the picturesque streams and verdant woods just down the road from Woodstock.

Indeed, Pond can at times be divisive. Over the course of seven albums, he’s managed to put together both a near-masterpiece in 2005’s Several Arrows Later and a real head-scratcher with 2002’s The Nature of Maps. Oddly enough, The Dark Leaves falls into both categories, working more like a compendium of Pond’s successes and failures rather than a decided step in either direction. There are moments that border on brilliance, yet there are tunes that simply should have been left behind at the cabin.

“Running Wild,” despite its noticeable debts to Butler, is carried by a simple chorus that soars with echoes of blissful nonsense: “From Brooklyn to Hawthorne/ The planes fill the sky/ You tell me about death, I tell you/ You’ve got no crepe myrtles in the car.” Built on a simple shuffle step drum beat played by Dan Crowell, the track foretells much of what follows on the album. Pond mixes lavish melodies that float and sway on a light breeze with the minimalist instrumentation of traditional folk music. And throughout, he punctuates each verse with clipped phrases that suggest deeper meanings: “With your chest, you believe/ When I’m fast enough to sleep/ Through the mouth, a million miles/ With those smashing windows running wild.”

Another track, “Ruins,” begins as a straightforward pop song crafted from a simple guitar line and comfortable rhythm, but its chopped refrain stops and starts with such misguided aplomb that it becomes distracting. This time, Pond’s lyrical nonsense washes out with the disjointed platitude “Now I’m searching for empty pockets/ They fill me up with your ghost.”

One constant, however, is the excellent musicianship provided by Pond’s contributors. Cellist Eve Miller and violist Christian Frederickson add a wonderful dimension to songs like “Winter Fawn,” where their mournful echoes turn the plain acoustic piece into an unquestionable standout. Sadly though, The Dark Leaves is too uneven to transcend its shortcomings, and that poses more of a conundrum than if it had been simply awful. There are great songs here, but it’s frustrating to see them so outmatched by the lesser efforts.

Links: matt pond PA - Altitude

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