(Chakra 5, CD, digital download)
As we learned from Huey Lewis, sometimes it's hip to be square. On their self-titled debut LP, Matt Townsend and the Wonder of the World follow the simple path that Townsend first trod on his 2012 solo EP, What Light Shall Be. The album is built on a tried-and-true folky formula that showcases the band's talents and offers a welcome reprieve from everyday worries.
From the first note, you can tell that Townsend, with his unembellished, slightly pinched vocals, is a Dylan fan. On the soaring third track, "Hollow City (Free Me to My Soul)," Townsend's pitch stretches toward the sky. Teetering on the edge of whiny, his voice rises sharply but doesn't break. The towering tune is inspirational and one of the record's finest.
Townsend's direct lyrics have plenty of earthy references. Thankfully, his metaphors are not too clunky. On "Wind Without the Rain," Townsend morphs body and earth into one physical and emotional jolt: "Like the fleeting space between / our tongues and our teeth / and the flaming fields / a feeling we can't reach." It's just thought-provoking enough without being overly ponderous.
The album's wistful, yearning energy is most apparent on "Takin' a Moment." Here Townsend sings, "I was staring down infinity out above the sea / What do I believe? / Oh, what do I believe? / Been searching everywhere for that of which I seek / What is it I seek? / Oh, what is it I seek? / And these thoughts are flowing in and throughout me / What am I to be? / Oh, what am I to be?" His musings are certainly relatable to young-adult listeners but could easily resonate with those of any age wrestling with questions of identity and place.
Musically, the band's instrumentation is a standard but still satisfying folk-rock blend of acoustic and electric guitar, bass and drums. To spice things up, the group occasionally adds a flash of Townsend on harmonica, piano and organ by Jamie Bright, violin by Rachel Keyser, or musical saw from Johnnie Durand. "Desire Like a Lion" opens with a pleasing, complex segment of guitar picking and is one of the record's most diverse tracks.
The closer, "Gratitude in Being," is a quiet number that reminds us to stay humble, focused and true. It's an ode to life's blessings, and Townsend pulls it off without sounding naive.
Now that they've mastered the standard indie-folk record, Matt Townsend and the Wonder of the World have license to experiment and refine their sound. It will be interesting to watch as they make their unique mark in the folk-revival world.
Matt Townsend and the Wonder of the World play Radio Bean in Burlington on Friday, September 12. Their self-titled debut album is available at matttownsendmusic.bandcamp.com.