Blue notes

Centro-matic's second album is so good, it will break your heart

Will Johnson and his new bride, Kris, should be packing up the house right about now, putting all those guitars and amps and vinyl records and comic books and Green Bay Packers posters in boxes and shipping them off to St. Louis. That had been the plan for more than a year, for Will to join The Two Matts--Barnhart, owner of Quality Park Records, and Pence, musician and producer--in Missouri, where they had set up their studio, Transcontinental Recording Company. Will and Kris thought everything was settled...right up until their wedding day in January. That's when Barnhart and Pence broke the news to the Johnsons and their friends--and during the reception, no less.

Barnhart and Pence were coming back to Denton after all, merging their studio with Dave Willingham's 70 Hurtz setup out in Argyle. Oh, yeah--and congratulations, man.

"We didn't mean to say anything," Pence says. "But everybody I talked to, I was sort of hinting around, 'We're thinking about coming back...maybe,' and they would go, 'Aren't you coming back?' It's like, well, I didn't say I was coming back. I mean, we hadn't fully discussed it with everybody in Centro-matic and didn't want anyone to feel like they made these plans to move to Missouri and we pulled the rug out from under them."

The Johnsons were at first a bit taken aback--shocked is perhaps the more accurate word. After a summer spent just outside of St. Louis--in Millstadt, Illinois, less than an hour away--recording the brand-new Centro-matic album Navigational with bandmates Pence, Scott Danbom, and Mark Hedman, Will had been preparing himself for the pack-up. Looking forward to it. Excited about the change of scenery, the small adventure laid out before the newlywed couple.

"I would have been content up there," Johnson says now, sitting in the darkened den of the Denton home that he and the missus share with Budapest One's Keith Killoren--the home he and Kris will remain in for a while longer.

Johnson now gets up each morning and goes off to one of his two jobs: working on a mercury-manufacturing machine and tending to a 25-acre farm just outside of town. Kris will finish school at the University of North Texas while Will considers his grad-school options. And Centro-matic will stay in Denton, all the band members living in the same town for the first time in more than a year. If nothing else, at least the band will finally get to practice somewhere else than on stage, during a show.

"Actually, I'm as content right now as I've ever been in my entire life," Johnson says, sitting on a couch while Oliver the cat lounges on a mattress propped up in the den, waiting for Barnhart to come pick it up. "I'm married. I'm crazy about my job--both of them. Being at our reception, seeing all our friends, I was thinking, 'Wow, we're about to run away and leave all this,' and it was kinda strange. Then, suddenly that night, when I found out both of the Matts were definitely coming back, it was kinda nice. It was kinda relieving in a weird way, just because it will allow us to settle for a while. I'm as happy as I've ever been. I didn't know people were allowed to be this happy."

He then lets out a laugh bigger than he is. Maybe that's because even he can't figure out how someone so content, so downright giddy in his personal life, could make a record as gloomy and bittersweet as Navigational, the second full-length released under the Centro-matic brand name (and the sole Centro-matic record to be released on Erv Karwelis' Idol Records). Johnson explains the songs were written a couple of years ago, and he wasn't "100 percent sad at the time," merely obsessing over a sad sound. Or maybe a sad record--say, Big Star's Third or something by Bill Callahan's Smog. When he wrote the 16 songs that make up the just-released album, he heard not only guitars and bass and drums, but violins and pianos--the stuff of which the very best, and the most fragile, pop melancholia is made.

The results are songs that hang on the most delicate skeletons--some not even songs, more like the ambient echoes of gently stroked guitars comforting half-whispered moans. Sometimes you can listen to the record and never hear anything but Johnson's guitar and his voice; that's how most of the songs begin anyway, the pieces piling on as they creep toward their finales. But other times, you'll hear only the piano or the strings, the overbearing silence and sadness they bring to the proceedings. "The Beautiful Ones," which closes out the record, is a sparse seven-minute epic, a duet between Danbom and Johnson that recalls the high-lonesome sound once made by the Jayhawks; by the end, you wish it would go on forever, if only it weren't so unbearably heartbreaking.

"God, I didn't mean to bum anyone out," Johnson says, laughing. "But yeah, it's not exactly a party record."

Navigational is not a record to be listened to in the car, not a record to be picked from the collection and played at random in the background. It offers no joy, unless you're among those who believe nothing feels better than to feel this godawful. If anything, it provides some solace, the consolation that someone out there actually feels worse than you do. It's all tension, no release--not even a teardrop for your efforts. And that's what makes it so utterly astonishing: After four years of writing and performing, Johnson, along with his bandmates, has managed to create the sort of record most musicians spend a lifetime trying to make--one that creates such darkness, you can't see beyond it. Play Navigational, and nothing else in this world exists.

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