By Alex Biles, University of Michigan
I was clued into Centro-Matic’s existence back in April while interviewing Jason Isbell*, who named-dropped the Denton, Texas quartet when I asked him what music he was into, adding the label “great” to his brief description. I wouldn’t get off my ass and track down any material until last month when I randomly caught a video interview with Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers who called them his “favorite band in the world since about 2001.”
Strong words from two of my most beloved songwriters.
Seeing as the band has released 10 LPs since 1996 and several other LPs as the Centro-Matic-and-some-other-guys collective that is South San Gabriel, I had no idea where to start. Following an examination of Pitchfork and AllMusic reviews, I decided 2006’s Fort Recovery would be a fitting introduction to the band.
All in all, a good decision. These guys know to build a mansion of sound, all while remaining tasteful in their decor and thrifty in their use of space. Throughout this record, and their back catalogue, they’ve shown a penchant for restraint over the willy nilly, while simultaneously injecting a healthy amount of playfulness.
“Covered up in Mines” is about as seductive as openers go. It’s a rusty boulder of an old machine standing tall over the Heartland, still hauling ass after all these years, securely anchored by the vocals of the band’s creative force — frontman Will Johnson. The juxtaposition between the soaring, almost shoegazing guitar work with Johnson’s soft and raspy tenor gives way to a warm blanket of sound. The sparse, distorted guitar at the moments in between recall the open range stylings of Wilco’s “Ashes of American Flags” or “Misunderstood.”
Fort Recovery‘s use of space is its most redeeming asset and along with a bump in production value, the one that distinguishes the record from other Centro-Matric releases.
“I See Through You” is a meditative piano-driven piece featuring carefully plucked acoustic guitar strings and gorgeous violins. As the album’s cleanup hitter, it’s surprisingly subdued, but when taken as a part of the whole, the reflective piece’s placement seems perfect.
It serves as an interlude of sorts for the slow-burning ode to aging that is “In Such Crooked Time,” where Johnson’s protagonist promises a reunion on “the shores of your decline.” The restrained guitar work and vocal harmonizing that closes out this song is nothing short of stunning.
Where Love You All the Same‘s mid-album foray into balladry marred the record’s burst from its gates, Centro-Matic appears to have learned from their mistakes. This is a band that’s more mindful about subtleties in ambiance than merely filling up a record. Although many of Centro-Matic’s past and preceding records validate their power pop label, Fort Recovery is notable for its lack of traditional hooks.
But that hardly means that the band has gone soft, abandoning romp for artsy, fiddle-laden desert drone.
The crunchy pop of “Calling Thermatico,” coupled with cryptic references about a fictitious criminal/cultural icon forced into exile should immediately placate the Love You Just the Same obsessive. It’s followed at the #3 spot by “Patience for the Ride,” with its fuzzy bounciness and deceivingly dark themes. While Johnson pulls out “eleemosynary was your call” with an early-Ryan Adams sort of braggadocio, twinkling accents line the backdrop.
It’s moments like this where Fort Recovery makes a strong case for being the best-constructed Centro-Matic record to-date. On here, the band makes its switch between contemplative introvert and life of the party with remarkable ease.
And Fort Recovery isn’t exactly schizophrenic. Plenty of tunes occupy the happy medium that is mid-tempo, like the abstract and virtually wordless “Take the Maps and Run” or the infectious melancholy of “Triggers and Trash Heaps.”
The entire album’s wavering restraint explodes with “Take a Rake.” It’s a sing-along celebration of camaraderie that manages to avoid any trace of cheddar. Johnson’s yowls, bandmates’ harmonies, electric guitars and synthesizers are all unleashed in the record’s victory lap.
Ironically, it’s the excellence of the closer that exposes the record’s weaknesses — an over-emphasis on restraint in places and a deficiency of Johnson’s razor sharp tongue. There’s times when the band threatens to break into a guitar solo, only to leave the listener with drool on their chin, looking like a moviegoer gypped out of the price of admission.
And Will Johnson’s impressive lyrical chops, though still present, seem disjointedly scattered throughout Fort Recovery, as does the surrealism that characterized past efforts. The use of non sequiturs and pillaging of Britannica’s more obscure pages from Love You Just the Same is sorely lacking.
That aside, “Take a Rake” exudes the warmth, pop influences and generous attention to musical detail that breathe life into the record. Here, Fort Recovery‘s lyrical references to aging, relationships gone awry and depression are fittingly numbed down by this ode to drunken good times and living life on the edge.
It’s a beautiful and oft-overlooked album from one of America’s most criminally under-appreciated acts. For this ride, you may not need an encyclopedia, but a damn good pair of headphones is seriously recommended.
* The New Student Union’s exclusive interview with Jason Isbell will be available soon, so stay tuned!