Thursday, March 30, 2006 12:46 pm
True to form, brilliantly
Centro-matic can make the same record over and over and never get boring
Will Johnson, Centro-matic’s singer, guitarist, and principal songwriter, is more than a frontman; he’s a frickin’ franchise. Besides cranking out eight Centro-matic CDs, Johnson has managed to write and record a couple of solo albums and releases by Centro-matic’s slightly weirder and more downtempo alter ego, South San Gabriel. Meanwhile, he and his loyal cohorts have logged an average of 150 gigs a year. Just listing all of Johnson’s accomplishments is exhausting, and finding new ways to describe his unnervingly consistent brilliance, year after year, project after project, is next to impossible. Sometimes you just want to give him a good shake and say, “Watch some TV already!” But that would be stupid and spiteful, because everything Johnson does is at worst interesting and at best sublime; he could set his tax returns to music and some of us would be riveted. Centro-matic, the quartet he founded 10 years ago in his hometown of Denton, Texas, is the flagship of the Johnson chain of creative enterprises, but that’s a distinction with no real difference. The execution might vary, depending on the project and the lineup, but the basic elements have been the same since 1996’s Redo the Stacks: that quality of heedless, incorrigible optimism suffusing every line, even the indecipherable ones; that scratchy, earnest tenor and its lovable/maddening tendency to mangle every other phrase, bury its meaning in mush-mouthed mutterances just when you’re sure you’re about to learn the secret of the universe; that writerly habit of mixing simple and complex language (did he really just say eleemosynary, for chrissakes?) without coming off like a total putz. Really, Centro-matic has been doing variations on the same theme for its entire career, and so what? Did anyone tell Marcel Proust to shake things up a little, put aside Remembrance of Things Past so he could try his hand at a detective novel or historical romance? The magnificent achievement of Centro-matic is that the same four guys can keep making the same record over and over and never get boring. It does, however, make the critic’s job more difficult, because even if all Centro-matic albums don’t sound exactly the same (the early recordings were a bit more lo-fi, a bit more conventionally alt-country, perhaps; the later material interposes a bit more twitch amid the twang), the reviews fall back on the same easy descriptors, the same tired THC-’n’-trucker-caps metaphors. Drums pound, cymbals crash, hooks soar, violins sob, and keyboards tinkle. All the same stuff keeps happening that makes music scribes paw through their thesauri in search of synonyms for “bittersweet” and “heartfelt.” Our language might not be up to the task of describing the immaculate authenticity of the Centro-matic experience, but Centro-matic’s music is. And that, alas, is music journalism’s ur-cliché: You just have to listen to it, man! True to form, any one of Fort Recovery’s songs could fit on any other Centro-matic album. Johnson is still mumbling his haute-hayseed profundities; the guitars still sound like bagpipes crossed with chainsaws; Matt Pence, with his tippy-tap fillips and fierce fusillades, remains the most inventive percussionist in indie rock; Scott Danbom’s violin and keyboard shadings are predictably lovely and always of a piece with Johnson’s and bassist Mark Hedman’s contrapuntal fuzz. From the downtuned death rattle of “Calling Thermatico” to the anthemic jangle of “Patience for the Ride,” from the Big Star-studded ballads “I See Through You” and “In Such Crooked Time” to the redneck prog of “Take a Rake,” the songs epitomize everything that Centro-matic fans have loved about the band since its inception. You just have to listen to it, man.