The Nature of Maps

Philadelphia’s not particularly known for its kickass rock bands, and oddsmakers didn’t see much need to dither with that formula, either, when it came to Matt Pond PA — at least not on the basis of the group’s first three albums. MPPA is the semieponymous (duh!) brainchild of one Matt Pond. It’s tempting to also label it “semipretentious” (given the relative likelihood of another Matt Pond treading the regional indie boards, nobody was forcing Pond to qualify the band monicker a la Chameleons UK or Mayflies USA), and “semiprecious” (the name’s supposed to be printed in lower case, something this writer steadfastly refuses to do unless you’re either a literary giant or a porn star, take your pick). For now, though, we’ll settle for semigorgeous.

As suggested above, early MPPA outings had a certain fey, wispy quality to them that led some reviewers to generously invoke Jackson Browne’s name, no doubt wanting to sidestep the rapidly fading star of — and by extension, credible comparison to — U.K. bed-sitters Belle & Sebastian. But on The Nature of Maps, Pond appears finally to have found his voice. (And thankfully it is his voice and not that of the Cure’s Robert Smith, to date Pond’s most obvious vocal template.) Along with his longtime buddy cellist Jim Hostetter, and bolstered by instrumental contributions from a number of talented Phillyites, plus members of The Rachels and Sparklehorse, Pond plows into a rousing half-hour-plus set of pure pop ’n’ roll. Yes, there is some delicacy afoot, as the presence of two cellos, a violin, vibraphone and harp might suggest; too, Pond’s knack for a soul-rending melody and a heart-steam-ironed-on-sleeve vocals will never land him a slot at Ozzfest or Vans Warped Tour. At the same time, he never comes across as a post-emo kid trying to grow up or a name-dropping Paul McCartney/Brian Wilson acolyte. Rather, on tunes such as “Summer Is Coming” (a shudder-throb slice of baroqueish orchestral pop that’ll charm fans of the Left Banke or the Flaming Lips in equal measures), “Fairlee” (Camper Van Beethoven goes all Britpop on your ass) or “Closer” (the best song Andy Partridge never demo-ed for XTC) Pond & Co. reveal both an eclecticism of desire and purpose. They bring together elements of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, mercifully sidestepping the alterna-’90s, to ring true as a heartfelt and immediately recognizable “group sound” — as opposed to a by-the-book summary of influences. No, MPPA still doesn’t kick ass, but as one who will always salute the presence of strings in a rock band, I’ll wager that, in concert, these Philly bohos pull out all the stops and then some.

E-mail Fred Mills at [email protected].

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