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The Case Against Supergroups, Even if They Feature Will Johnson and David Bazan

The Case Against Supergroups, Even if They Feature Will Johnson and David Bazan
Will Johnson of many bands, including Overseas and, of course, Centro-Matic

Late last month, indie-loving fans of the globe, and especially here in Texas, finally received a single, but major, piece of news regarding the project that's surely to be slapped with the ubiquitous "supergroup" label.

Overseas, consisting of David Bazan (Pedro the Lion), and former Dallasites Bubba and Matthew Kadane (Bedhead and The New Year), along with Will Johnson (Centro-matic), indeed is the stuff indie-music geeks' dreams are made of. Of course, former Denton resident Johnson, now living in Austin, has recently been in the middle of more so-called supergroups than any other artist of late.

The past few years have seen Johnson record an album with the recently departed Jason Molina, drum for the Monsters of Folk and contribute arguably the best tunes to Jay Farrar and Jim James' Woody Guthrie-intensive project, New Multitudes. Let's not forget he played pivotal roles in the solo albums from the Hold Steady's Craig Finn and Drive by Trucker's Patterson Hood, as well. Oh, he also released his own stellar solo album last year, Scorpion.

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Could you add just about any mid-level indie artist to a roster with Johnson and deem them super? It's not a stretch to suggest that, given Johnson's history. But the Kadanes, who, whether they like it or not, helped bring slowcore to the world with the remarkable catalog of Bedhead, and Bazan, who has turned into an even greater indie icon since leaving Pedro the Lion and releasing a pair of albums, are much more than random backups or jamming buddies.

On paper, "super" seems to fit, but so often, just as it is in Major League Baseball, the best outfit on paper doesn't end up holding the trophy after it's all said and done. The New York Yankees have spent more than two billion dollars putting a team onto the field in the past decade. For that, the heftiest sum in baseball history, the pinstripes have walked away with only one trophy.

When it comes to the so-called supergroups in music, specifically, how often does the allegedly "super" project turn out to be super enough for anyone to forget the main gigs of any of the talented members?

 

Overseas "Ghost To Be" from Undertow on Vimeo.

Let's focus on Johnson and his extracurricular exploits. How many out there (feel free to raise your hands) would grab a copy of the Molina & Johnson record, solid as it is, before Centro-matic's Fort Recovery ? How many would opt for the inventively well-done New Multitudes disc before Centro's fantastic 2011 album, Candidate Waltz ? If more than a couple of hands are raised, it's safe to say they belong to Magnolia Electric Company or Son Volt fans who are behind on their Centro-matic studies.

The prime question to be asked here is what's so super about a group that doesn't surpass most of the individual artists' main bands in quality? Personally, for example, I'll take three out of the past four Deer Tick albums, two of the past three Dawes albums and all three of Delta Spirit's records over the imminently listenable 2011 Middle Brother offering, consisting of the lead singers from the three aforementioned acts. Will Radiohead fans, experimentally adventurous as we all are, ever choose the well-received, recently released AMOK from Atoms of Peace over our favorite Radiohead album(s) (I'm predictable: OK Computer, followed closely by In Rainbows and The Bends).

Interestingly enough, the tracks that Overseas have offered for streaming on their official website are, in fact, fantastic. Perhaps more interestingly, the songs take the form of the Kadanes' Bedhead/New Year tone and rhythm, giving the band a signature of sorts, rather than a mishmash of random rock tunes and demos for albums the members' respective bands chose not to record. Even with Bazan's vocals taking lead in "Down Below," and Johnson's signature rasp singing "Ghost to Be," it'll be tough for any 1990s-Dallas music lover to deny a meaty sonic resemblance to the past.

If only judging from the reputation of the artists involved and a few listens to the pair of songs the band's offered up for streaming, it's beyond safe to assume Overseas' self-titled record will be super, but it's likely time to be over calling any all-star collection of players a supergroup. If Overseas comes through with a couple of excellent records over the course of the next five or six years, then it's all a different story than previous supergroups have been, but one trophy doesn't make a great team a dynasty. Right, Yankees fans?

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