Matt & Kim are a drums-and-keyboard duo from Brooklyn, and they have an odd problem: their music might be too easy to like. Their songs are packed with energy and uniformly anthemic, full of chirpy loft-party enthusiasm. But the music can be so cheery that it feels more like a loft party on a TV comedy, or in a commercial for cell phones. One of the choruses on their new album, Sidewalks, has Matt Johnson singing “No time for cameras / We’ll use our eyes instead,” which has a youthful earnestness to it and would also make a good tagline for a new camera that promises to let you enjoy the moment instead of fiddling with zoom settings.
That’s not meant as an insult, exactly. It just happens to put the band in a funny place, stuck between audiences — they’re a little too DIY and unstylish to get pop attention, and a little too straightforward and low-grit to truly grab the indie world, where quirky optimism, lately, can draw eye-rolling and jokes about iPod ads. There’s something lovable about them — Kim’s muscular drumming, Matt’s nice-guy yelp — but they keep falling into the noble-but-thankless role of making music lots of people will find charming, and few will embrace with much fervor. It seems telling, somehow, that advertisers do like to use them to sell a feeling (or Mars bars, or Drew Barrymore movies), or that the video for “Lessons Learned” had them stripping and streaking in Times Square. Or that, a few weeks ago, I spotted them on the cover of The Nest, which is apparently the house-and-home magazine that gets sent to people who recently interacted with a wedding magazine called The Knot, and are now presumably married and in the mood to buy new furniture. Something about the band’s charm lies in personality and friendliness and lifestyle, more than the songs themselves. Matt & Kim almost make more sense on a home-for-couples periodical than a music one.
And that’s not an insult, either. On Sidewalks, the band’s synth-and-drums setup lets them pull in a few ideas from the poppy, youthful hip-hop on the Billboard charts, and they assimilate them well, slowing the pace and backing off some of their old punk moves. They sound as problematically winsome as ever.
In some presumably darker corner of Brooklyn, there’s an act called Violens, whose new album I might be in a slight minority for finding fascinating. The band works some influences that are pretty popular in the area lately — moody late-eighties New Wave, for the most part. (See also Twin Shadow and Chairlift; Violens itself descends from a band called Lansing-Dreiden, which was mining this territory years ago.) Their record’s called Amoral, and what stands out about it is its sheer and mildly unfashionable ambition. The songs are varied, dramatic, and go all-out in chasing a lot of different ideas: dark noises, slinky pop songs, baroque drama, and even a smiley pop number that sounds disconcertingly like the Shins. What’s refreshing — in a time when a lot of similar acts seem a little cloaked or retiring — is how boldly Violens go after each sound, and seem ready to risk looking silly (or pretentious) when they fail.