Out Here

The Static vs. The Strings
(Quality Park Records)

In the hands of any other band, an album like The Static vs. The Strings would merely be something to fill the gap between real records, a way to buy a little more time until the group could come up with enough songs for a new album. The disc is more or less a stopgap -- Centro-matic's follow-up to this year's Navigational is due in January -- yet it's almost impossible to think of these songs as leftovers. The Static vs. The Strings is less a collection of scraps than it is a way to keep up with Will Johnson's frenetic output, the mountain of songs that have piled up since he first sat down with a four-track recorder a few years ago. And even though The Static is intended to be the first in a series, Quality Park would almost have to release a disc every month just to stand a fighting chance. It may have taken Johnson a while to write his first song, but he's no slouch when it comes to making up for lost time.

The Centro-matic Web site (www.centro-matic.com) lists 137 songs, beginning with the ones that appeared on Johnson's first cassette, Non-Directional Jetpack Race. But the site's inventory doesn't include anything written after February of this year; it wouldn't be a stretch to imagine that he's closing in on 200 by now. But Johnson has always been able to balance quantity with quality. He doesn't just write a lot of songs; he writes a lot of great ones, songs that take maddeningly simple melodies and make them sound so beautifully complex. Johnson's and violinist-piano player Scott Danbom's voices wrap around each other like lovers, stretching out their harmonies on "The Execution of Sixty-Odd Drummers" until they almost break. But the only thing that's really in danger of breaking is someone's heart; Johnson can sing sad songs, such as the acoustic "You Might Need This Now," better than anyone this side of Jeff Tweedy.

The fact that just three of the album's 14 tracks have turned up on previous Centro-matic releases ("Calling Up the Bastards" and "Turning Your Decisions" appeared in different versions on 1997's Tympanum EP; "Say Something/95 Frowns" showed up on last year's self-released Line Connection Aim cassette) only serves to underscore how marvelous each one of the band's records is. And this one is no exception. "D-Boon Free (Ninth Grade Crime)" is one of the band's best efforts yet, all cooing backups and handclaps, with just enough keyboards to make a difference. "Neighbors, Habits, Downtown" is even better, Johnson's wobbly guitar balancing on top of drummer Matt Pence and bassist Mark Hedman's rickety rhythm. The song doesn't just threaten to fall apart; it does. But you've never seen such a gorgeous mess.

Zac Crain