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Thursday, June 29, 2006 07:10 pm

Matters of the heart

Lucky Syd -- girls are suckers for sad boys

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Syd Matters
As long as there are girls who are suckers for sad boys, there will be a place in the global economy for the likes of Syd Matters. You won’t hear me complaining. If those girls can be blamed for The O.C. and James “Rhymes With” Blunt, they also deserve the credit for Wuthering Heights and Elliott Smith. How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable all the uses of this world would be without musical Hamlets swanning around for swooning Ophelias! Let’s hear it for the girls who scrawl their idols’ mopey lyrics in their algebra notebooks, girls whose bored suburban hearts thrill to moody melodies and extravagant avowals of doomed love, girls for whom anhedonia acts as an aphrodisiac. These were the girls who bought countless Cabrios at the suggestion of that sexy corpse Nick Drake; if just a fraction of them cozy up to still-breathing sad sack Jonathan Morali, the suits at V2 will be very happy indeed.

Morali, the twentysomething Frenchman who fronts Syd Matters (it’s both a band and an alter ego, à la Cat Power), is a walking, talking mash-up of singing saddies. Sometimes he sounds like Drake, sometimes like Smith, sometimes (rather often, in fact) like Thom Yorke and Beck circa Sea Change. And because Morali has the good sense to sing in English, the teens and tweens who watched The O.C.’s momentous senior-prom episode understood every syllable of “To All of You,” his sonic billet-doux to Marissa, Summer, and their SoCal ilk: “To all of you American girls in the movies/No one can tell where your heart is/American girls like dollies/With shiny smiles and plastic bodies/I wish I had an American girlfriend.” It took Seth Cohen a whole season to say the same damn thing.

It might sound as if I’m mocking Syd Matters, but I mock because I love the sad boys, too, because I watch The O.C., because — hello! — Ryan is my favorite. Of course I love Syd Matters, and it troubles me not one jot that the new CD — which comprises the band’s entire second release, Someday We Will Foresee Obstacles, and a smattering of tracks from its debut, A Whisper and a Sigh — is, in its tasteful mélange of electronic hum and acoustic strum, not exactly the ne plus ultra of contemporary popcraft. The weirder, glitchier songs (“Passe Muraille,” “Middle Class Men”) aren’t doing anything that wasn’t done more memorably on OK Computer, and the prettier, more melodic songs (“Black & White Eyes,” “English Way”) probably could have been tossed off by a sleeping Jon Brion or Rufus Wainwright. But even if Syd Matters’ florid electrofolk isn’t particularly innovative, it’s perfectly lovely — Gallic melancholia at its most sublime and wistful, like a rainy weekend’s worth of red wine and Truffaut videos.

There’s enough going on with the arrangements to satisfy listeners who demand variety, if not complete originality. “Icare” mixes fragile finger-picked guitar and angelic backing vocals by Euros Childs of Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci with a police siren. “Someday Sometimes,” in both its chamber-poppy original incarnation and its edgier El-P remix, is the reason God or the Beatles invented minor-to-major key shifts; “Battle of Olympus” makes a volley of ascending and descending piano scales sound like the most genius move imaginable. “End & Start Again,” a twinkly piano dirge, is quite possibly the most hopeful song ever written about the annihilation of the human race, and when Morali sings, in “Flow Backwards,” about how he’d like to “pull your eyes out” and “knock your brains out,” he makes it sound totally hot. Bonjour, tristesse.
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