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Will this year's best local records survive the millennium?


Centro-matic's Will Johnson showed off every side of his personality on two great albums this year.
Centro-matic's Will Johnson showed off every side of his personality on two great albums this year.

My ears are ringing but my heart's ok
Captain Audio
(Last Beat Records)

It's not fair to refer to Brandon Curtis, Josh Garza, and Regina Chellew in terms of the bands they used to be in; this one's fine by itself, thankyouverymuch. After all, only bits and pieces of their respective pasts in other bands have wriggled their way into this brilliant future. They are fading echoes that have almost completely dissipated by the time the chorus of voices that overwhelms the latter half of "know it all" fades into the guitar feedback that closes out the song and the disc. It's that moment that best sums up My ears are ringing but my heart's ok, the subtle shift from melody to malady and back again. Songs are pulled apart and put back together in the wrong order, piled high with effects or pared down to just Chellew's trembling voice -- both of which are used to fine effect on "know it all." Captain Audio renders pop music as scientific experiment, mixing together sounds and adding more, until even the free-jazz interlude on "often mistaken for the sun" doesn't seem out of place. If nothing else, the squealing, reeling guitar solo that kicks off "driving, riding" features the least self-conscious Prince reference of 1999.




Idol Records

The Static vs. The Strings Vol. 1


Quality Park Records

Most musicians have trouble coming up with enough quality material for one album, yet Will Johnson already has his next record ready and waiting, the forthcoming All the Falsest Hearts Can Try, and is beginning work on another one. But maybe the best proof yet that Johnson is one of the finest songwriters here or anywhere is the fact that The Static vs. The Strings Vol. 1 -- a set of songs that didn't fit onto either of his previous releases, 1997's Redo the Stacks or Navigational -- is just as good as any other disc released this year. The leftovers on The Static vs. The Strings are every bit as appetizing as the 16 tracks on Navigational, and, maybe, they highlight Johnson's skills even better, bouncing from Will-and-a-guitar sketches ("Say Something/ 95 Frowns") to four-on-the-floor stompers ("Neighbors. Habits. Downtown.").

Which is not to say that Navigational isn't as good as The Static vs. The Strings -- it just focuses on one of Johnson's many talents. Navigational is a more somber and sedate affair, country waltzes that would have you believing Johnson is the most depressed person alive if you didn't know any better; if "Ruin This With Style" doesn't make you hide all knives and sharp objects, nothing will. But Johnson sings a sad song better than anyone on this side of the Mississippi, and Scott Danbom's fiddle would make a dead man tear up. While The Static vs. The Strings has its downhearted moments as well, it also lets Johnson and the rest of the band prove that they are one of the few rock-and-roll bands around these parts that matter. And as long as Johnson continues to write songs as good as these, Centro-matic might be the only band that matters.


A Few Possible Selections for the Soundtrack of Your Life



There are few things that can be said about Chomsky that don't also apply to groups such as XTC and The Police; there's little that can be added to the dialogue that was started two decades ago. What else is there left to say about four guys playing pop songs on guitar, drums, and bass? More than you think, at least when the band does it so well that you forget you might have heard it all before. That doesn't mean that Chomsky is unoriginal, only that it comes from good stock, writing simple pop songs that become more complex and intelligent each time around. Other groups have tried to walk through this same territory and failed, only because they never realized that guitar-pop can be a minefield of clichés if you don't watch your step. Singer-guitarist Sean Halleck and the rest of the band -- drummer Matt Kellum, bassist James Driscoll, and guitarist Glen Reynolds -- pull the neatest trick of all, managing to sound as familiar as yesterday and exciting as tomorrow at the same time. You only think you've heard it all before.


More Bad Habits
Ronnie Dawson
(Yep Roc Records)

Not much left to say about this cagey veteran that hasn't been said since, oh, 1954. Either you know or you don't -- and those who don't haven't really lived, so get with it or get gone. The point, at this point, isn't whether Dawson gets better (how does he do it?) or gets worse (yeah, right), but merely that he exists -- not as a vestige of that teenybopper who wowed the crowds at the Big "D" Jamboree, but as a still-viable performer with potency enough to make the dead dance. He's not just some symbol, a weathered icon to be adored because he never gave up; to see him as mere survivor is to see past him, to altogether ignore the man and his music. His back story becomes irrelevant once he steps into the studio or takes the stage; his greatness is not dependent upon "Rockin' Bones" or "Action Packed," simply because the man is no more an echo of those songs than he is a shadow of the young man who once performed them.

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