June 17, 2003

South San Gabriel "Welcome, Convalescence"

I have to hand it to Mr. Will Johnson. His work ethic makes most bands and artists look exceedingly lazy. It seems as if he's setting out on a new tour every other week, and new albums appear every year--many times, more than one. To top it off, his productivity is never to the detriment of his music; if anything, his songs just keep getting better and better. What's even more amazing is the fact that he also deftly avoids making the same song twice! Though he's known as Mr. Prolific Songwriter, Johnson has slowed down just a tiny bit over the past year or so, and in so doing, his music has become extremely refined.

At its core, South San Gabriel is a Centro-matic record in all but name. Though the band members are the same, they are joined by a few friends: Brent Best (Slobberbone) plays acousitc and slide guitar, Joe Butcher (Pleasant Grove) provides some pedal steel guitar and organ and Brian Vandivier (Wiring Prank) provides baritone guitar. The name South San Gabriel stems from their 2000 release, South San Gabriel Songs/Music, which was a darker affair compared to the crunchy, Archers Of Loaf-style indie rock of All The Falsest Hearts Can Try. In Europe, the album was released under the name South San Gabriel. Apparently happy with the distinction, they decided to adopt an alter-ego moniker for their slower, darker material.

If you've listened to any Centro-matic record, you're aware that Johnson and company have a love of both loud, hard rockers and slower, stoned-out ballads. With the new distinction between the two, South San Gabriel is Johnson and company's exploration of darker, more experimental music--thus allowing Centro-matic to grow and not be smothered by experimentation. Thus, they are allowed the comfort of experimentation without the loss of reputation--a wise move, certainly; a welcome presence, definitely. At any rate, it smacks of appreciation for his fans, and that's to be respected, too. There have been hints--most notibly Navigational--but the direction that they take on Welcome, Convalescence is most welcome; Johnson's singing holds up quite well in music, regardless of whether it's a loud rocker or a soft, mellow ballad.

It should be understood, though, that 'softer' and 'mellower' does not mean 'weak'. Though Welcome, Convalescence is of a calmer nature than the frantic rock of Centro-matic, it should not be regarded as anything lesser. This is not 'traditional' music, nor is it 'folk' and it's only vaguely 'country.' In fact, I'd go so far as to say that South San Gabriel defies those genres and borders on electronica and experimental, because underneath Johnson's sad, soft singing is an electronica heartbeat--one that plays off of found sound, field recordings, and the occasional keyboard and drum loop. At times, Johnson's singing is accompanied only by static ("Ariza/284"), and other times he's accompanied only by acoustic guitar and a tape of found sound, such as on "The Splinter Angelic." Interestingly enough, Welcome, Convalescence starts off with "New Brooklyn," a song that sounds not unlike Centro-matic's cover of Vermont's "Old Blue," from a split CD release with Vermont from a few years ago.

The most striking number on Welcome, Convalescence is the epic "Everglades," which starts off with Johnson's quiet croon accompanied by an occasional drum machine beat and a haunting pedal steel in the background, which then fades into a noisy drone. After about a minute of drone, Johnson starts singing again, the drum pattern returns, but an utterly hyper drum-and-bass rhythm keeps getting louder and more manic--while Johnson's singing becomes more catatonic and detatched, and by the end of the song, he's singing acapella. It's certainly like nothing Johnson's done before, and hopefully it won't be the last.

Will Johnson's reputation as an excellent songwriter and hard-working musician is certainly well-deserved, but South San Gabriel certainly proves that he and his coharts are capable of producing more than just quality rock music. It's a sign of their genius that they can pull off such a unique record, and it's even more telling that they can do so without staining their already exemplary track record. Welcome, Convalescence is a rare album that is both extremely challenging AND quite enjoyable. Welcome, Convalescence is an album worth seeking out, for it will most assuredly be seen again on many 'best-of' lists this year.

--Joseph Kyle

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