Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Fall

Review: Centro-Matic/South San Gabriel: Dual Hawks - Stephen M. Deusner @ Pitchfork

I have to perform some righteous indignation this morning due to this review of Will Johnson's latest albums. Being a fan of Centro-Matic since All the Falsest Hearts Can Try was released, I've found myself increasingly disappointed in each new release after South San Gabriel Song/Music. Perhaps it was the timing of the records, or the feeling of their shows after 9/11, but Centro-Matic lost a bit of their edge then. Before The Distance and Clime came out, the recorded sound of Centro-Matic was raw and grainy, the lyrics were to the point in a roundabout way and the guitars had this live quality rarely found on a studio release. And there have been a couple of excellent songs laid down since then, but none of their ablums past 2002 have recaptured that glory of Centro-Matic's initial years.
It's fairly obvious that Deusner hasn't steeped himself in Will Johnson's early catelog. Had he then he would notice the dramatic shift in production with Distance and Clime. While that record has the same lyrical flair of earlier ones, I found it over-produced and far too clean for a proper Centro-Matic record. Personally, as much as I love Matt Pence and his abilities behind the drum kit, his production values on the last three albums have stolen the fire that made Centro-Matic such an amazing band. And then there's Johnson himself, who for whatever reason (he stopped wearing a wedding ring around 2003) has muted his once raucous mind.
The Centro-Matic of the late 90s and early years of the new century was born out of the ashes of Johnson's previous band, the Funland Band. After being seriously screwed over by Arista the band broke up with Johnson going off to do his own solo work just as lead singer Peter Schmidt took his music in a different direction with Legendary Crystal Chandelier. But those first Centro-Matic released were something to behold. I still have one of his cassette tapes Johnson sold at shows at that time. It was basically a demo tape with Johnson just singing and playing guitar on whatever he could find to record on. Redo the Stacks was similar except with the inclusion of drums, bass and piano along with the help of a local cellist. And so went the succeeding records as Johnson pulled together the line-up that remains today: Scott Danbom on keys and rythmn guitar; Mark Hedman on bass; and Matt Pence on drums. And these guys are still good guys. Hedman bought me a drink once simply because I was wearing one of their t-shirts that night.
These are regular guys and their Denton-based sound was edgy, different and authentic Texas music. Once they started touring the European theater, that sound faded. The greatest show by any band I ever saw was not long after the release of South San Gabriel in June of 2001. After that, the fervor of Johnson's music faded as their production became too clean and radio-friendly. I still love the band, but the magic is gone. Deusner, I think, doesn't know this because he wasn't there for those amazing first years. While his review is focused on Dual Hawks, it troubles me that the reviewer implicitly lacks the knowledge of what Centro-Matic once was. I miss that band and miss them all the more when I see them play now.