While it is abundantly clear that Matt & Kim has musically matured from its Grand days, many of the songs on its new album aren’t much of a departure from its earlier records. Matt Johnson and Kim Schifino try desperately to switch the formula up just the right amount on each song, but as an album, Sidewalks is filled with disappointing cracks. The duo’s spunky, too-slickly produced songs hang on to the prototypical style that has worked for them so well in the past, while seamlessly integrating refreshing ’80s electro influences. They walk a thin line between indie rock and eccentric electro-pop, meshing the two sounds in an incoherent and ultimately disappointing album.
It’s no surprise that Ben Allen, who oversaw Gnarls Barkely’s smash hit “Crazy,” produced Sidewalks. The album’s first single, “Cameras,” was a wise choice as an introduction to their new, funkier sound. Half singing, half rapping over a whimsical xylophone and a soulful and funky horn section, Matt gleefully serves up an infectious sequel to the band’s hit song “Daylight.” On this sing-along style smash, the beat is rife with hip hop’s influence and the band emphasizes living in the moment, as Matt howls, “No time for cameras / we’ll use our eyes instead / no time for cameras / we’ll be gone when we’re dead.” The lyrics could be read as profound or goofy, but the song is undeniably fun and memorable.
One of the most noticeable things about Matt & Kim is the enthusiasm that so effervescently shines through on its songs. The pair recently compared the ’80s synthesizer intro and back beat of “Red Paint” as something similar to a “weird, cat-in-heat” sound. With the help of blurted sounds and a killer beat, “Paint” is the best song on the album. It incorporates calming flutes as a sort of interlude before leaping back into the playful chorus, “Hands in red paint / let’s make some stains.” The song has typical Matt & Kim silliness and sound, which is what makes it so entertaining.
One fact that comes to light quite clearly on Sidewalks is that Matt’s voice is not fantastic. Luckily, it integrates well with most of the group’s peppy and intriguing songs. On “AM/FM Sound,” Matt innocently sings about having “no time to waste” as a Gorillaz-style synthesizer reverberates in the background. The verses race and lead into a stirring sing-along chant of a chorus. While some may consider it a copout to stock up the chorus with a series of “oh’s” and “ah’s,” Matt’s unique voice makes it work.
His voice is detrimental though, on one of the most intriguing songs on Sidewalks, which coincidentally is also its most disappointing. A radical departure from the rest of the album, “Northeast” is a slow, solemn, and quite boring song about New England. Sleigh bells and a blase drum beat carry Matt’s voice, too quirky for a song of this nature. As much as the band clearly wanted to try something different, the track just doesn’t work.
As fans of the band may discover on listening to Sidewalks, Matt & Kim seem to have lost the homegrown appeal that made Grand so likeable. It’s hard to fault the two of them, who come across so likeable on stage and in interviews, but Sidewalks comes across as inauthentic and (dare I say it) a sellout. As great as Matt & Kim are, the concept grows tired as the album progresses. On their own, the songs sparkle with freshness, but as a whole, Sidewalks quickly gets stale. I found myself growing irritated as I listened to the album from start to finish, a disheartening fact considering that the album is a scant 38 minutes long. It’s obvious that the duo has spent some time listening to the most recent Passion Pit and Tokyo Police Club efforts, but the formula that worked so well for those bands just doesn’t satisfy here. If you like Matt & Kim, give the album a spin. If you’re just a casual fan, check out “Cameras” and leave the rest of Sidewalks in the distance. 6.5 out of 10.