Graded on a Curve:
Matt Kivel, Janus

Matt Kivel has been on the scene for a while in a handful of bands, but the profile of the Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter and guitarist was effectively boosted by a pair of recent solo efforts documenting a progression from folky individualism toward a more pop and rock-tinged milieu; the experimentation-flecked Janus combines aspects of each and exhibits tangible growth to produce his best album thus far. It’s out on LP February 5 via new label Driftless Recordings.

Before stepping out solo Matt Kivel was in the group Princeton alongside his twin brother Jesse; additionally, he played guitar in the garage pop outfit Gap Dream. His debut Double Exposure, the byproduct of a couple of years of work, arrived in 2013 on cassette through Burger Records and on vinyl courtesy of Olde English Spelling Bee.

Aptly described as folky, Double Exposure has been compared at least once to Nick Drake, though Kivel’s no copyist, his occasional falsetto distinct for starters. A big similarity is purity of conception, the record having emerged without much in the way of expectations and finding a label home only after completion. But it wasn’t entirely like that; the title track was a sleepy-lidded post-shoegaze pop nugget foreshadowing Kivel’s follow-up Days of Being Wild.

Swiping a title from Wong Kar-wai’s classic film from 1990 (this cinephile hypothesis is reinforced by Double Exposure’s final entry “Days of Heaven” sharing a moniker with Terrence Malick’s ’78 masterpiece), Days of Being Wild was issued in 2014 through the Woodsist label and revealed a considerable move into the light.

Produced by Palace Brother Paul Oldham (sibling of Will don’tcha know) Kivel’s sophomore disc was intermittently infused with a rock sensibility (“Underwater,” “Open Road”), singer-songwriter-ish guitar-pop (“Insignificance,” “Little Girls”), a cut unfurling like an ’83 demo from a moody wannabe next Springsteen (“Blonde Boy”) and even hints of power-pop (the title number).

Kivel also unveiled material on a 2014 split with Providence-based song-sculptor Tim Woulfe sensibly titled Kivel and Woulfe, and the next year Heaven, Songs of Matt Kivel interestingly underscored his talents as a tunesmith; therein, his output gathered interpretations by Saturday Looks Good to Me’s Fred Thomas, decades-long vet R. Stevie Moore, guitarist Hayden Pedigo, Drag City recording artist Sophia Knapp, the Patrick McDermott solo project North Americans, and his brother Jesse.

But perhaps the most significant contributor to Heaven, Songs of Matt Kivel is Alasdair Roberts, the Scottish musician having filled the producer’s role for Kivel’s latest. He began writing for Janus in 2014 while in the midst of a Roberts’ listening binge, his ear particularly devoted to Farewell Sorrow and Too Long in this Condition.

Kivel then reached out to Roberts in hopes of gaining his guidance in the making of Janus. Further correspondence ensued and eventually travel plans were made for Glasgow where across a two-week period in November of 2014 the LP was recorded at Green Door Studio; alongside Roberts was engineer Sam Smith.

The opening title cut is marked by a folk-derived aura somewhere between Will Oldham and Sufjan Stevens, as the song develops it establishes a gentle tone initially hinting at a return to the sort of bedroom privacy that somewhat defined Double Exposure. But a crucial difference does emerge as “Janus” attains an impressively formulated instrumental intensity, the electric guitar, violin and percussion achieving beautiful climax.

Where Kivel’s debut could register a bit like eavesdropping, “Janus” is in the opposite camp; demanding attention as it gradually builds, and as the following nine selections unwind the interest rarely flags. Nor has he abbreviated his range, as “Violets” is a fine slice of uptempo pop-rock and “Pyrrha” a mix of tender fingerpicking and confident, unstrained vocalizing given adept accompaniment by snare drum and accents of distant horn.

While Kivel is far from rusty on his axe, the opening portion of “Prime Meridian” sheds a powerful spotlight upon his increasingly striking voice. And yet it’s the brewing instrumental maelstrom led by keyboard thunder and a rippling avant-jazz horn crescendo that elevates the track to the level of true standout.

By contrast, “No Return” is a relaxed affair easily linked to the great indie folk deluge of the early 21st century, but it also possesses stylistic traits reminiscent of the folk circuit-schooled singer-songwriters of the ’70s at their most palatable. It’s a likeness enhanced by Kivel’s throat graduating from tangents of the unusual on Double Exposure to consistently sturdy and distinctive in the here and now.

Furthermore, there is detectable confidence in both writing and execution that shines during the uncluttered placidity of “Janice,” and as the cascades of harp and touches of flute broaden the landscape they will undeniably reinforce the aforementioned indie equation. However, it’s doubtful “Jamie’s” will garner such comparisons as it delivers Janus another highpoint by sounding like the kind of ditty FM DJ’s once played deep in the ’70s night; undercutting any retro possibilities are shards of disruptive feedback and a bout of explicit lyrics, a tactic that’s becoming a sort of Kivel auteur signature.

From there a generally straightforward culminating stretch begins, though the “The Shining Path” is no less dynamic; the rhythm work here and elsewhere is excellent. “Orpheus” is a fairly laid-back scenario strengthened by clean string tones, assured vocals, and brightly-hued choruses. “Palm Beach” again dabbles in the fragile folk zone for the close, so Iron & Wine fans might want to take note.

The stinging resonance of the guitar picking in “Palm Beach”’s concluding moments is a swell touch highlighting a major talent, and Janus displays enough versatility overall to suggest Matt Kivel is in no danger of running out of creative steam.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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