Seeing any picture of Matt & Kim, one can get a pretty good idea of what the band’s all about. Ever since the duo released their self-titled debut in 2006, they have garnered a reputation for eagerness, virility and general smile-till-your-cheeks-hurt-itude. Going into the band’s newest album, Sidewalks, I had known of this reputation, but I had assumed that the group was a garage-rock bash-happy guitar-drum act on par with The White Stripes and The Black Keys. However, Matt & Kim are the logical musical extent of their reputation. The band has a madcap drummer in Kim Schifino, but a keyboardist in Matt Johnson is in the guitarist’s stead. The result is a sound that, to the band’s credit, fits their energetic dynamic like a glove. A knack for catchy songwriting that does justice to their aesthetic and an embrace of hip-hop-like arrangements, however, put Sidewalks over the edge from cheap escapism to one of the most fun records of the year.
Contrary to the group’s size, Sidewalks is by no means spare. Irrevocable hooks aside, many elements are added to the album that never sounds like a byproduct of the compulsive eclecticist. Logically enough, blaring horns add yet another layer of joyousness to the proceedings in album closer, “Ice Melts”, both giving the impression of a celebratory finale and a balls-out blast reminiscent of Sleigh Bells’s “Crown on the Ground”. “Wires” incorporates a child’s piano to gloriously jubilant effect (Strangely enough the only time I can remember this instrument used and to such good effect is in a System of a Down song).
The result of this interspersing of instruments gives Sidewalks an intriguing sound. A significant portion of the album’s percussion is drowned out by drum machines, and catchy synth lines are repeated so formulaically that it gives one, at times, the impression of a rap song. This trend reaches its climax in “Good For Great”. It’s throbbing strings would not sound out of place on the lighter part of a hip-hop album, but Johnson’s voice is so unabashedly joyous, it puts the listener in somewhat of an awkward place. However, Matt & Kim waste no time in making sure the score for these conflicting sounds is so catchy, they work together and prove to be some of Sidewalk’s biggest highlights.
Sidewalks may not immediately come to mind as a bastion for balance, but a great part of what make the album good is that there is a bounty of excellent arrangements that nullify some of the more annoying aspects of being on an everlasting positivity bender. A penchant for the varied and intricate lends heft to otherwise cringe-worthy lyrical and musical choices such as “I’ve got the northeast on my side”, “I know where you’re coming from” and, well, the melody of the chorus to “Replay”. I advise fans and skeptics alike to check out Sidewalks, because it is a celebratory record that evades the questionable label of “epic”. Matt & Kim do not look to change the musical landscape, but make it that much more fun to explore.