Sidewalks mixes synth with swells

Matt & Kim perform at Facebook’s F8 2010 after-party. (credit: Courtesy of Krystino from flickr) Matt & Kim perform at Facebook’s F8 2010 after-party. (credit: Courtesy of Krystino from flickr)

Matt Johnson and Kim Schifino first met while attending the Pratt Institute, a private art college in Brooklyn. They gained an online following through MySpace and Facebook, and in 2006 released their debut album, self-titled Matt & Kim. Then they got to work in Vermont in the house where Johnson grew up and recorded Grand, which they released in 2009. Their music video for their single “Lessons Learned,” off Grand, in which the duo strips nude in Time Square, won the Breakthrough Video award at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards.

Take the pop-like, fun, catchy songs from Grand, add a little sugar and spice, clean it up a bit, and you get Matt & Kim’s new album, Sidewalks. For this album, the duo tried something new, working with a producer, namely Ben Allen, who has worked with Animal Collective, Gnarls Barkley, and Christina Aguilera. What resulted was music that is a little different from Matt & Kim’s usual.

The duo released its first single, “Cameras,” on Aug. 31, a perfect close to summer. Ever present is Johnson’s sass and quip, evidenced by the lyrics that sometimes don’t make sense. What’s missing is the messy, sporadic melodies that were essential to Grand. Instead, there is a presence of Southern hip-hop beats, which make the song more rhythmic and dependable. This sound is not necessarily bad or good, just new, and it’s a new that seems to be — as evidenced by the rest of the album — here to stay.

The three best songs on the album are arguably the first three, although it’s hard to pick favorites when most of the songs are so great. The first track,”Block After Block,” has some of the same qualities as the third track, “Cameras”— a similar beat and the same catchy pump. “AM/FM Sound” is just plain catchy, with its cutesy lyrics and bouncy chorus of “Oh-ey-oh-ey-oh”s. Like any pop song, it’s hard not to sing along, and even harder to get it out of your head.

“Good for Great” is another track with the same repetitive quality. The song mixes synth with orchestral swells, and Schifino adds her voice, resulting in a great song about experiencing life to the fullest. With lyrics like “Leave good for great” and “So many books that I didn’t read, but there’s so much air I chose to breathe,” it’s hard not to feel inspired.

Matt & Kim also try their hand at a slower piece in “Northeast,” which uses sleigh bells to emphasize the bittersweet tribute to home and youthful times. The song is a nice surprise amidst the pop and beat-heavy tunes.

Matt & Kim are usually known for their high-energy, do-it-yourself sound — part messy and part amateur — that appeals to fans. None of those qualities are missing in this new album. Well, not exactly. Instead, Allen stepped in and polished them up, making their music a little more musician-y and a little less gritty punk. The sound is not a bad one, although some fans might disagree, but it leaves the band caught between its old ridiculousness and a new trying-too-hard, borderline-safe production. The pop sounds have mass appeal, and no doubt Matt & Kim will gain many new fans with this album, but if they’re not careful, they’ll lose old ones in the process.