By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
There's an old joke about musicians that goes, "What does a drummer say right before he's fired? Hey guys, here's a new song I just wrote." Anyone who knows Centro-matic's Will Johnson (who started as a drummer in Funland a decade ago and still sits behind a kit for Denton's Wiring Prank) probably doesn't get that one. The reason: As good of a drummer as Johnson is/was -- and he was great with Funland, a mess of barely contained body parts and booming backbeats -- he's even better with a guitar in his hand and a microphone in front of his face. He's so good, in fact, that at Centro-matic's recent show at Gypsy Tea Room, celebrating the pending release of All the Falsest Hearts Can Try, someone leaned over to me and said, "I love Will Johnson, and I hate him. How come he gets to write such great songs...and so many? Save some for everyone else."
The man with a love-hate relationship with Johnson was, of course, being facetious, though it likely isn't the first time someone has cast an envious eye toward Johnson, who continues at a pace that makes writing songs seem as easy to him as breathing. The songs just keep pouring out (somewhere around 200 at last count), and a few months later they're collected on an album. But the process is never fast enough to keep up with Johnson. All the Falsest Hearts Can Try, Centro-matic's fourth full-length, is just now making its way out (though it's already available via mail-order, a full-scale release is a few weeks away), and the band's fifth album is already in the can, tentatively set for release in August. In fact, the group is beginning work on a sixth disc, which, more than likely, will be ready to go before No. 5 even hits stores.
Not only do Johnson and company (bassist Mark Hedman, drummer Matt Pence, and piano and fiddle player Scott Danbom) crank new deliveries out quicker than a traditional Irish-Catholic mother, there's never any filler -- every song's a winner. Johnson never repeats himself, treading the same territory without retracing a single step. Each song stands on its own. When you consider Johnson's impressive back catalog, you don't ask yourself, 'Can he keep it up?' -- you only think of how special each album would be (and how much you'd miss the steady stream of near-brilliant melodies) if Centro-matic released only one a year.
As on previous efforts -- the 1997 debut, Redo the Stacks, and last year's Navigational and The Static vs. The Strings Vol. 1 -- Centro-matic proves on its latest that it can handle the loud songs, the quiet ones, and everything in between. Though no disc has been able to recapture the initial, scruffy burst of Redo the Stacks, showing off every aspect of Johnson's writing style in the same way, All the Falsest Hearts Can Try comes the closest yet, even one-upping Redo at times, thanks to the presence of the full band (which wasn't assembled until after Stacks). Even the group's experiments with lo-fi electronics -- the first minute of "Hercules Now" rides a Casio drumbeat, "Would Go Over" toys with push-button samba -- pay off, furthering Centro-matic's whatever's-in-the-room philosophy. You get the feeling Centro-matic could come up with a dozen gems using a ball of twine, two plastic forks, a few rubber bands, and a box of paper clips. (Maybe that will be disc No. 6.)
As it stands, the band doesn't need anything out of the ordinary to create its extraordinary songs, just enough studio time and someone to release them. Where Navigational was mostly made up of quiet, contemplative hymns, and The Static vs. The Strings found much of its brilliance in a four-track recorder, All the Falsest Hearts Can Try doesn't lean too hard on either style. There are a few hushed songs (the wistful "Gas Blowin' Out of Our Eyes" and broken-voiced "Save us, Tothero" among them), and Johnson's four-track makes an occasional appearance (the Guided-by-Will "Would Go Over," most notably), but the disc doesn't belong in either category.
Mostly, All the Falsest Hearts Can Try is a little bit of both, plus a healthy dose of play-fuckin'-loud rock, such as on "Huge in Every City," which gently pushes away from shore with Johnson and Danbom's voices, a lonely kick drum, and a lazily strummed guitar on board, eventually giving way to an amp-blowing climax that just about finishes the disc off five songs in. Of all the things Centro-matic does well, just plugging in and going for it might be where the group is at its best. On songs like "Call the Legion in Tonight," "Most Everyone Will Find," and "The Blisters May Come," Centro-matic delivers the straight-ahead rock; Johnson fires into every song like it's the first one he's ever written. The rest of the group tries to hold him in its alternately tight/loose grip, which makes Centro-matic come off as the sloppiest well-rehearsed band around. Word is, Centro-matic's next album is more of the same, the flip side to the subdued Navigational. Not that it matters: As long as Johnson has enough songs in him, whatever form they happen to take, there's no reason for him to slow down. If it were up to me, Centro-matic would release a new album every month. If only.