It’s easy to imagine that the brooding, ambient folk on Matt Sharp’s self-titled full-length was recorded within the hallowed halls of some purgatorial cathedral in honor of country music’s dead heroes — the sacred music for the Johnny Cashes and Woody Guthries to moan piteously along to as they await redemption. Sharp tells us otherwise. According to the liner notes, the former Weezer bassist and Rentals frontman wrote and recorded these tunes at 4212 Old Hillsboro Road in Leipers Fork, Tennessee, not in the bowels of the ether. And that’s too bad — a bit of willful hyperbole would have gone along way toward injecting some excitement into a record so full of precious self-consciousness.
Take “Let Me Pass,” for example. Sharp mumbles simpering rhymes over passionless acoustic guitar chords and a few Telecaster twangs in a song that seems to reduce the entire American singer-songwriter canon into five minutes of reverb-drenched swill. Thankfully, Sharp never stoops lower than this: “But the man at the gate won’t negotiate/ He’s becoming irate/ It’s a stalemate.” But transcendent music this ain’t. Like most of Matt Sharp, tunes like “Watch the Weather Break” and “Goodbye West Coast” — the one track pulled from last year’s Puckett vs. the Country Boy EP — lie somewhere between Beck’s Sea Change and Brain Eno’s ambient work but capitalize on the strengths of neither. Rivers Cuomo’s one-time consigliere rarely finds the words or the melodies to rise above folk’s tire-worn sentimentalities.
“Just Like Movie Stars” is the exception that proves the rule. The often-burdensome ambient atmospheres of engineer and collaborator Josh Hager become suddenly weightlessly beautiful as Sharp’s lazy-eyed evocations of silver-screen dreams hang over a meandering folk arrangement that sounds like Nashville bathed in a London fog.
But even help from friend and Cake guitarist Greg Brown fails to save Sharp’s debut from background music duties. Although his stark transformation from a thick-rimmed-eye-glass-wearin’, AD&D playin’, Moog-lovin’ dork extraordinaire into a Jack Daniels-drinkin’, Sartre-readin’, Nick Drake-lovin’ recluse par excellence is rather admirable, Sharp’s record takes none of the transformative risks of its author.