March 8, 2007

He Knows Jack, Skills Don’t Lack

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What does a singer-songwriter do in this day and age to get into the spotlight? One thing would be to get as close to Jack Johnson as humanly possible. And it’s been working a little bit for Matt Costa, at least. Having contributed to the Curious George soundtrack, it’s likely Costa’s name will show up in a search on your iTunes library — even though you likely have absolutely no clue who he is. If you like the mid-tempo, acoustic, Sunday-afternoon-hangover-migraine-remedy type music of Jack Johnson, Matt Costa’s Songs We Sing is worth a listen.

Don’t expect to smell the Oahu sea breeze with Songs We Sing, though, because the two don’t have any lasting musical similarities (though Costa’s aspirations to become a pro-skateboarder mimic Johnson’s former surfing profession). The first track and most notable single, “A Cold December” effervesces with pop awareness, but minor chords earn Costa credibility that dwarfs likely accusations that he apes old Jack. With the album’s second cut, “Astair,” Costa suggests ’70s Singer-Songwriter Golden Age artists such as John Denver rather than earthy ’90s versions like Ben Harper. The 24-year-old Costa even includes harpsichord on this track, a throwback to both the 16th century and the 1960s.

Perhaps fearing a typecast, Costa shoves an electric guitar into the forefront of the next song, ironically titled “Sweet Thursday,” for some rock n’ roll edge. Of course there’s also a sizeable electric solo attached to that endeavor, but the sweetness of Costa’s multi-tracked voice contrasts nicely with the instrumentation. Just as soon as the rock interlude ends, “Sunshine,” a percussive acoustic guitar-laden Woody Guthrie-esque tune brings back the Matt Costa we’ve come to expect — replete with sha-la-la’s and harmony. Thus far the album has yet to disappoint.

Just as soon as the comfort settles, Costa missteps with the sappy “These Arms.” It’s one of the least interesting tracks as the piano and lovelorn musings don’t do the kid’s guitar capabilities justice. In contrast, the contemplative piano on “Yellow Taxi” definitely works, fitting right in with the nonstop strumming that bustles like the city ambiance Costa croons over.
Perhaps if he’d worked at crafting a more bluesy sound for “These Arms” it wouldn’t resonate as gushy. “Ballad of Miss Kate” boasts an intro that shows the dexterous bluesy guitar skills that the previous track unquestionably lacks. And The Annie Oakley narrative hints at some of the true roots of the music that inspires Costa. The simplistic rockabilly of “Sweet Rose” also lets the listener peer into Costa’s musical influences.

Though Jack Johnson may have taken Costa under his wing, signing him to his personal Brush Fire Records label and packing him along as support for his summer 2005 and Europe 2006 tours, Matt Costa is no disciple of the Hawaiian guitarist. He strums his guitar and writes his own tunes, but the ostensible similarities end there. Songs We Sing is an album full of simple yet eclectic and mostly acoustic songs, each influenced by various members of the Great American Songbook.