When someone is about to get famous, people start saying they have "something"—usually, that means prominent cheekbones, which Matt Costa happily happens to have. But what Matt Costa actually has is what a certain kind of rock star has always had: Not star quality, but, hmm, fan quality? A humble one-of-us sort of appeal, for the times when people are tired of taking instruction from up onstage—they might listen to someone like Matt because they can relate to him so easily, and if he becomes famous, and he might, it will be because he seems so familiar.
You could think Costa Mesa art-haus RVCA would incubate some famous-ish bands—what a sweet and welcoming demographic, the moneyed skateboard bro-hemian—and maybe Matt will be their newest: an almost-pro skater himself till he snapped his leg at 19, and now, three-ish years later, he plays the RVCA gallery to 2,000-plus warm-fuzzied fans, just before leaving on an arena tour with American bland-stander Jack Johnson. But though he comes from Huntington Beach, he talks more about a place he (half-seriously?) calls "songland," and he doesn't know too much about a lot of other local contemporary bands because, he says, what he looks for in music is an escape: "To get away from everything around here," he says, "to move myself back to the '30s or the '60s, to see what people were doing then. I kind of have my own little world in my room . . ."
He seems to mean it so literally: it's music as transport, as refuge, as a way to rearrange a landscape. That's a very recognizable local idea—you kids out there in Costa Mesa with tinfoil on your windows and thrift-store turntables understand—and in a way, it holds Matt's a-little-more-than-acoustic songs back. He's just a listener, just a layer-in-bed, a boy whose songs so far are only after-the-fact reaction: some lyrics are about morning sunshine through windows and some about girls who've slept over and since left, and some are about how the outside world isn't even worth the trouble ("Astair": "Are the mountains and the trees/. . ./are they less than what/you'd expect to see?"). That's why his debut full-length, SongsWeSing, brings your four walls even closer around you: it's an album so small it could fit in one tiny Huntington Beach bedroom. But that's also the exact size of so many of our lives, and Matt sings about that in such an obviously honest and sincere and personal way that it's no wonder 2,000 kids show up in Costa Mesa to hear him strum that acoustic guitar: Mr. Narrator, this is like Bob Dylan to them.
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Even though Matt loves the music of the '60s so much, that's not really where he's coming from—even though the Beatles are all over his record, with "Oh Dear" as a McCartney music-hall song and "Songs We Sing" saying hey there! to Buffalo Bill, and Van Morrison slips in, too, with the la-la-la of "Brown Eyed Girl" instead of the slow-and-low AstralWeeks. He's lite acoustic-guitar with a gentle backing band and some sad strings (like closer "Wash Away"), basically a PetSoundsdecal job for the songs he really does write alone on guitar in his room.
But this record truly comes from 1956, a year Jonathan Richman liked too, a year he sang about as a destination the same way Matt talks about music taking him somewhere else. And that fits exactly this aw-shucks sort-of kid who answers questions as carefully as he can, whose songs come in poster-paint colors (gray skies, brown leaves, yellow taxicabs) with school-fool rhymes (cities are pretty, lights are bright, dreams got seams but it'll be all right, ah-hey, a hey hey) and cardboard cutout backdrops: trees and seas, cold winters, warm summers, "shimmering" fields, and no rainbows yet but certainly you could think you see one as the clouds start to part. It's so heartfelt and polite and apple-cheeked suburban American, with almost every song about diz-a-nee girls and up-in-my-room and wouldn't-it-be-nice, except for the jarring and not-very-believable "Whiskey and Wine," which is probably about the one time in his life that Matt Costa gave himself a sad-drunk hangover. Dylan would growl and stub out a joint on this kind of thing, but Brian Wilson would probably cry because that's what he always wanted, too.
When my own actual dad saw Matt play—with the full band who now back him live and on SongsWeSing, which, thanks to the involvement of No Doubt's Tom Dumont, has a wrecking crew of local rock stars as session musicians—he said it was just like Don MacLean. That's another guy who might have loved to be Dylan, but whose voice and whose life were just too nice, and whose signature songs were about someone else's art that he loved. And that's fine: he was an appreciator instead of an innovator, a listener and not a leader, someone still sad that Buddy Holly died so young. I think Matt himself would say the same thing: even if he's singing the sort of songs that a lot of people have sung, he means it just the same—he's a young talent that (right now) would stretch too thin in front of the whole world but that fits tightly and completely into a little room with a stereo. Matt's songs are almost answers to other songs, and Matt's audience is just himself, with the door closed and the headphones on. But the funny thing is how easily and completely I can relate.
MATT COSTA WITH JACK JOHNSON AND THE ANIMAL LIBERATION ORCHESTRA AT VERIZON WIRELESS, 8808 IRVINE CENTER DR., IRVINE, (949) 855-8095. SUN., 7 P.M. $23.50-$40.