Throughout his career Matt Costa has risen from a skate-boarding strummer of infectious poppiness, to a weightier artist exploring structures, themes and possibility. What does “Mr Pitiful” from Unfamiliar Faces have in common with “Call My Name” from the Orange Sunshine soundtrack? Nothing too obvious – but they both belong in the prolific output of Matt Costa’s ever-evolving canon.
Recently we’ve seen Costa the radio-show host, a string of 5 EPs released during a 12 month period, and a couple of soundtracks. Now here we are with Costa’s first full-length studio album in five years. This collection explicitly addresses one thread that brings continuity to much of the artist’s work; his home state of California. The name of the album is Santa Rosa Fangs.
It’s true that the Golden State has appeared as supporting cast in much of Matt Costa’s work, but not until now has the marriage of artist and muse been so sharply focused. Santa Rosa Fangs is a titular reference to the bite of the place. This is not a particularly hard-biting album; nothing jolts, nothing shudders. However, these 12 songs snag subjects as Costa works his way through his issues.
Not exactly a concept album, the sequence of tracks are populated with characters that inhabit Costa’s real and imagined versions of a place. Built around a deeply personal story; the deaths of two of the artist’s cousins in unrelated accidents – places are remembered, celebrated and longed for. Equally craved are the times before the loss of loved ones. The evidence of love remains all across the Californian landscape as we travel through landmarks in time and location.
“I still think about it you, but it’s been a long time” is a line in “Time Tricks” that nails the inescapable nature of grief. Emotions of the album are most strongly triggered by visiting places that hold significance in the artist’s relationship with the deceased. Like the rest of the album – this deceptively simple, almost throwaway line, resonates long after the music stops. A track like “Ritchie”, later in the sequence, pulls up your heart and stops everything for some time. It’s a thing of beauty.
At times the imagined world is more magical than Costa has conjured before. We touch on the surrealism explored in the previously mentioned Orange Sunshine soundtrack, but this isn’t an album built around altering perceptions. At other times, we’re met with a documentary-like frankness as the artist addresses personal relationships, and the reality that sits directly in front of him. For these contrasting worlds – the sounds, the characters, the recurring subjects – they’re all most definitely Californian.
Lead single “Sharon” echoes with the tone of classic Californian production techniques, when singer-songwriters like Tom Petty filled the Billboard Top Ten. The deep shine of walnut amps can be felt across the production of the album. Lyrically, there’s humor and heart. Costa teases, with affection, the people and places that he holds dear. While there are sonic references to the old guard of songwriters, and their arsenal of production techniques, we’re not looking over our shoulders or romanticizing anything of the past in order to escape the now.
The title-track offers one of the most tripped-out moments of the sequence. There’s a timelessness, like there is to much of Costa’s work. Reverb allows notes to hang against each other. A percussive piano – which the artist has always played well – punctuates the backdrop, and a whole bunch of vocal over-lays happen. Even at it’s most abstract the album retains a structure that brings reference and awareness, as Costa navigates from magic to the mundane, and back to magic.
What happens on Santa Rosa Fangs is the offering of a fortified version of the artist. Matt Costa has gone deeper into himself, travelled through the real and remembered landscape of formative years. He brings them into the now with a clarity of vision that expands on his usual palette. His expressions of loss are remarkable, and so is his sense of balance as he shifts toward the light, and to the living. Let’s go ahead and call Santa Rosa Fangs Matt Costa’s most accomplished sequence of songwriting so far.
PHOTOGRAPH – PAMELA LITTKY
HURRY – LISTEN – MATT COSTA