When a band releases somewhere north of ten full-length records, multiple EPs, and participates in numerous side projects and still toils away in relative anonymity, you might come to expect that there will come a day when that band will attempt to depart from what makes them unique. That they will venture down a path that the nabobs of the commercial world have determined is the only avenue to stride upon if they want to widen their circle of audience members. But for Centro-matic – unlike many before them – that fateful day would appear to still be nigh.
As much as they deserve the accolades and the accompanying riches, they don’t appear to be the type of outfit that would sacrifice their integrity for the sole purpose of elevated remuneration. Centro-matic is, has been, and will always be – Will Johnson, Scott Danborn, Mark Hedman, and Matt Pence, four great musicians that synergistically create a sound and mood that far supersedes the sum of their individual efforts. Their new effort – Candidate Waltz (released yesterday) continues the spirit of the journey that this uncompromising Texas-based quartet embarked upon some fifteen years ago.
There is an educated level of sophistication with this taut group of just nine songs – previous albums have averaged close to thirteen – that continues to express with diamond precision, the enigmatic themes of Johnson’s deeply personal lyrics.
Like Johnson’s painting that decorates the cover – and is the main feature of the video of the first single, Only in my Double Mind – the meaning and intention behind his songs is something that is left up to the observer to conjure. The sparks of ideas that one garners from repeated exposures to the songs, begin to create personal narratives that may have strayed far from the source, but are nonetheless, just as valid.
With the aforementioned single and the opening track, Against the Line, the band deviates slightly from their standard by burying the vocals a little deeper in the mix in favor of a more unified front. The results are a pair of groove-based, multi-layered, 4/4, romps that – if format-free radio still existed – might actually make a play list or two.
The other songs return the band to the formula that has satisfied the stable of their fervent cult following for a decade and a half where the stellar accompaniment is supplanted by the soaring vocals of Johnson and Danborn. Johnson’s tenor alone is worth the price of admission, but when supported by Danborn, an otherworldly sound emerges that pierces the consciousness of even the casual listener.
The multi-movement, All the Talkers, changes tempos, keys, and dissipates with a haunting refrain of voice and reverse loops. Two intimate ballads – Estimate X 3 and Shadow, Follow Me provide the touchstones of navigation through the entire set. The album closes with the relentlessly driven, pickup scratching, If They Talk You Down.
It all adds up to yet another great record from this incredibly consistent, though always surprising, unit. This is music that you hear in your head as you move through life until, of course, you actually hear it. It’s familiar and strange at the same time.
Johnson & Danborn: A Perfect Pair
There have been multiple vocal pairings – or in the case of “The Band,” triplings – that have been able to create that magic tone that rises above the normal drone of most popular music. Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, John Doe and Exene Cervenka of the LA seminal outfit, X, even John Croslin and Kim Longacre of the now defunct Austin-based band, the Reivers. I’m sure there are many more out there that might have got you thinking about the reasons why you’re drawn to a particular song.
What re-categorizes Will Johnson and Scott Danborn from the above are their ability to not only create interesting harmonies together, but also explore haunting combinations of vocal stylings when they double the melody, or toss in a pitch-perfect mournful refrain at the end of a verse or chorus. One listen and you’ll understand.