Matt Townsend and The Wonder of the World- Matt Townsend and The Wonder of the World
Release Date: June 23, 2014
Record Label: Eternal Mind Records
There are some types of music that will simply never get old to me, and the folk genre is definitely at the top of that list. That’s not to say I love every folk artist I come across without reservation or variance, though. Over the course of the past few years, as I’ve dug further and further into this genre, I’ve found that vocals are really the make or break aspect of folk music for me. Interesting musical ideas and stunning instrumental work catches my ear, and I’m always a sucker for a good turn of phrase, but when the vocals are uninteresting, I just lose my way halfway through the record. Such was the case with this year’s album from the band Woods, or with another critically acclaimed 2014 disc, Burn Your Fire For No Witness by Angel Olson.
It’s good news, then, that Matt Townsend and The Wonder of the World – a new folk record from the artist of the same name – is an album whose prime focus is an interesting voice. Townsend lists the likes of Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and Neutral Milk Hotel as his influences, all widely respected folk artists with unusual voices that most people wouldn’t call “beautiful” or even “pleasing.” Townsend’s vocal timbre isn’t as caustic as Dylan’s or Jeff Magnum’s (of NMH), nor is it as shrill and piercing as Young’s, but you can hear the influence of all three on his singing and his music in general. The pinched, imperfect nature of his vocal delivery on songs like “Hollow City (Free Me to My Soul)” recalls Magnum, while his inflection and the near-feminine nature of his clear, high tenor voice definitely owes its sound to old Neil Young records.
Dylan, meanwhile, is more evident from Townsend’s traditional song structures, his steady guitar strumming, and the harmonica bursts that appear on many of his songs. In fact, Townsend is such a good imitator of Dylan’s old style on this album’s opening track – a Woodie Guthrie-ish number called “Seventh Story” – that it’s almost remarkable that the song isn’t 50 years old. One can imagine that this is what Dylan’s first few albums might have sounded with less dated production. And yes, that is a compliment – even if it posits Townsend as a shameless purveyor of musical styles that were all but out of date by the time he was born in the late 1980s.
Indeed, Townsend spends a lot of time on this record flipping through his record collection and borrowing as he sees fit. The tempos slow down on “Wind Without the Rain,” a gorgeous duet between Townsend’s usual voice/guitar palette and a wonderfully pristine violin line. The song variably sounds like Leonard Cohen and Stevie Nicks (if that dichotomy doesn’t show off the interesting color of Townsend’s voice, nothing will), though the feel and pacing might actually have more in common with a more modern folkie: Josh Ritter.
All of these outside parallels and comparisons mark what is simultaneously the best thing about Townsend’s music and the thing that holds this album back from being great. The fact that Matt Townsend and The Wonder of the World incorporates elements of dozens of other artists and records into its reach makes it an immediately charming and welcoming album, full of comfortable traditional folk arrangements and songwriting that inspire memories of everyone from Counting Crows to The Tallest Man on Earth. The bad thing about this, though, is that Townsend’s music never really gets to stand on its own because it sounds so much like so many other things we’ve heard before.
Sure, folk music, perhaps more than any other genre, is a form that relies on tried and true formulas rather than on taking risks. With that said, though, my two favorite albums of the year so far – Noah Gundersen’s Ledges and Sun Kil Moon's Benji – are both records that take these age-old tropes and make them sound fresh and revelatory through stark emotional nakedness and through songs that dig deep and never pull their punches. Townsend never finds the same pulse for his music here, so while we get plenty of pretty campfire playlist candidates (the gorgeously dusky “Desire Like a Lion,” or the riverside lullaby that is “Gratitude in Being”), they don’t really have the magnetism necessary to transcend their core elements or influences. That’s fine though: Matt Townsend and The Wonder of the World is still a wholly enjoyable album from start to finish; it’s just not a terribly memorable one.