Songwriter Plus String Quartet = Dark Plus Intense
When you think of a songwriter with a string quartet, you probably imagine the end result being some kind of chamber pop or art-rock. What Matt Siffert has done is something entirely new. It’s not opera or arias but it’s not rock either: you could classify this as indie classical with vocals, or a style that Siffert has invented and has yet to name. Either way, his new album Cold Songs is is an extremely enjoyable, bracing ride.
Don’t let Siffert’s soft voice fool you: he has an edge. While there’s a lot of bitterness in the storyline here, Siffert has a sense of humor that often takes centerstage.The music follows the lyrics very closely, sometimes almost to the syllable, shifting from pensive and wistful to savage and vicious, or simply playful. The composition is lively and sophisticated, with intricate counterpoint, polyrhythms and harmonies that range from austere to harsh to hints of neoromanticism, serenely sustained passages up against slashing, turbulent interludes. Violinists Maria Im and Olivia Mok, violist Erin Wight and cellist Eric Allen dig in, soar and wail through this terse five-song collection
The first song, Figures from Your Past sets the tone, shifting nonchalantly from a rather blithe pizzicato intro to brooding and then insistant and angry. After a seething a-cappella verse -“Even a thief tastes my kiss, even a jackal hears my hiss, even a weatherman feels my fickleness” – the strings rise up again, agitated, to a cold ending.
The second track, October is the post-breakup scene, brooding and downcast, biting melody set to a lush arrangement. Showoff brings some welcome comic relief: “Sometimes I gotta show off,” is Siffert’s insistent mantra, as he turns the quartet loose with dancing countermelodies over a catchy cello hook and a jauntily suspenseful vamp on the way out.
Two Women at Once is a wryly rakish, theatrical Brecht/Weill-style cabaret number with an unexpectedly creepy interlude and an equally unexpected plaintiveness as it winds out: none of these songs follow any kind of predictable verse/chorus format. “I haven’t loved in weeks, maybe more, maybe none,” Siffert’s narrator asserts. The album returns to a pensive and eventually creepy ambience with When Is It Gonna Be Me, whose steady, apprehensive swirl foreshadows that this is no ordinary lovelorn ballad, and as it darkens it becomes genuinely sinister. Where Siffert goes from there is ts too good to spoil. You can hear all this at his Bandcamp page, where the album is streaming all the way through: Siffert and this string quartet play Zirzamin on Feb 1 at 8 PM.