“Mr. Pitiful,” the opening track to Matt Costa’s Unfamiliar Faces, indicates that this, his sophomore album, will not only pick up where the upbeat, Beatles-indebted singer-songwriter style of his 2006 debut, Songs We Sing, left off, but also take a refreshing turn for the unexpected. The rollicking piano and handclapping sing-along of “Mr. Pitiful” places Costa, a Southern California singer-songwriter by classification, far beyond the confines of the traditional singer-songwriter tag, and we get to hear him without the comfort of his acoustic guitar, using the understated but assured power of his voice and piano — not an easily strummed guitar — to build a gorgeous, powerful momentum.
But after “Mr. Pitiful,” Costa reverts. He is still better than his contemporary — and labelmate — Jack Johnson, and although the two share a desire to express an effortless, acoustic-based groove, Costa, on the tender ballad “Never Looking Back,” sings of desperation in a beautiful way Johnson never could. But other songs, like “Lilacs,” “Emergency Call,” “Cigarette Eyes,” and the title track, put too much effort into creating a robust sound, and what’s sacrificed is Costa’s subtle, often heartbreaking vocals and lyrics. At his strongest, Costa plays like a direct disciple of Paul Simon, but here he’s in watered-down form.
When we get to “Bound,” Costa again shines, singing, “But I know more/ Than you think I do/ You got a hole in your face/ Where I can see through you” over a minor-chord, slow bluesy stomp that showcases his strongest weapon, his voice, which cuts like an articulate Dave Matthews or a more vitriolic Paul Simon, and recalls “Ballad of Miss Kate,” a great track off his debut.
But perhaps indicative of Unfamiliar Faces is “Vienna,” which shows Costa touching on a bossa-nova feel, but it sounds almost identical to a song by Kings of Convenience called “Know How,” which — it’d be a stretch to say it’s incidental — is on the soundtrack to A Brokedown Melody, to which Costa also contributed. With such a young, singular talent, it’s a shame to hear him aping other styles when he clearly is full of a wealth of unexplored talent.