It's not by accident that Centro-matic's latest (and fifth, if you're keeping score) begins with the sound of a typewriter hunting and pecking out a miniature backbeat, a writer finding his rhythm. South San Gabriel Songs/Music is not necessarily a concept album, but it certainly sounds like a novel set to music, what seems to be the story of a bitter old man reflecting on a life lived the wrong way for all the wrong reasons, writing down his own cautionary tale. It's the saga of a "Proud Son of Gaffney" with "a nine-color map of the world" he's been holding upside down for far too long. It's the "Destroyer," who's "capable of killings once thought impossible." It's someone "With Broken Hands," waiting as "the hospital holds me with its tightest clutches." It's a deathbed confession, the last gasp of hope from a man wondering, "If I found some ocean/Would you please accompany?" Or maybe I'm just reading between lines that aren't there. The feeling hit me two listens in, and I haven't been able to shake it.
Of course, this review was originally going to consist of little more than a dodge, beginning and ending with a question: What's left to say about Centro-matic at this point? And no, I didn't have an answer nor did I intend to find one anytime soon, at least not until a couple/few months from now when the next Centro-matic album will undoubtedly appear in my mailbox. Subtly reinventing itself each time, the band has long since left behind any references to its members' respective pasts, as well as any well-I'll-be gawking at its prodigious production (what--closing in on 100 songs in the last two years now?). As of now, the only thing that matters is the music, not how much of it there is, or what bands the people making it used to be in. Then again, relying on that plan of attack is the biggest dodge of them all, because that's what it should have been about since 1997's Redo the Stacks. It is, after all, the point--the plot, the stage, the actors, everything. What is Centro-matic other than an outlet for the music that keeps welling up in Will Johnson, the dozens of melodies that replenish themselves weekly, the lyrics that manage to live in Texas yet belong to the rest of the world, like one of Nelson Algren's Depression-era stories? Again, I could be reading too much into it, but Johnson only confirms that idea each time out, and especially on South San Gabriel.
Who's releasing the records counts for even less than all of that, or at least it should, except that it does serve as sort of a forecast of each disc's contents. Meaning: Whether it's intentional or not, a pattern has emerged from Centro-matic's set-your-clock-by-it release schedule, split between a pair of labels. Quality Park Records gets the discs that have a little bit of everything (The Static vs. The Strings Vol. 1 and this year's All the Falsest Hearts Can Try), and Idol Records gets the moodier, contemplative albums (Navigational, and now, South San Gabriel Songs/Music). In other words, Quality Park gets Born to Run, Idol gets Nebraska, and everyone is happy, or they should be anyway.
Another pattern has emerged from the deluge of Centro-matic songs rushing south from Denton. Johnson and Centro-matic have made a habit of combining opposites, songs that push and pull like "the awesome display of a lover's runaway" he sings about on "The Ensuing Light of Day" on South San Gabriel. The band traffics in sad songs that you smile all the way through and happy songs that leave you in tears, wordless choruses that speak just as loudly as Johnson's literate verses. Songs that feature only Johnson and a guitar (say, "Destroyer," for instance), or maybe Scott Danbom and his fiddle, might sound bigger than a symphony, and full-blown, full-band takes sound as if they're playing just for you. South San Gabriel has fewer of the latter--"Proud Son of Gaffney" and...that's about it, but it's more or less the theme of the album. There's a little bit of Johnson and Danbom's falsetto wail--"There's some poor correlation," with a final syllable that lasts more than a minute--hiding in the rest of the album, an echo that lasts long after "Destroyer" turns off the lights.
While it has more than a little in common with Navigational, South San Gabriel Songs/Music is full of more flesh and bone, thanks to the addition of Stumptone's Chris Plavidal, who's credited with "playing" "additional noises, feedback, and various sounds" on the album. Performed by a makeshift five-piece, South San Gabriel's songs and music are as quietly loud as possible, the band playing/not playing with a restraint that sneaks up on you, each note hitting like a ton of cotton. In the end, it might not be the best Centro-matic album (I still can't stop listening to All the Falsest Hearts Can Try), but it's a great record nonetheless. So what's left to say about Centro-matic after South San Gabriel Songs/Music? Collect 'em all.
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