May 23, 2006

Centro-matic "Fort Recovery"

Because of Centro-matic’s prolificacy and consistency — at least nine albums and two EPs in the last decade, with nary a stinker in sight — the band has often been praised as the Texan answer to Guided by Voices, even after the sonic similarities between the two bands disappeared. Almost every Centro-matic song superimposes obtuse wordplay atop a workmanlike chord progression, and climaxes with a hook that I can’t help but sing along to, despite how awkward the lyrics look on paper. (The chorus of their new album's catchiest song consists of the following words: “With all allegiance high to the monument sails of the Southern skies/Never to deny the magnitude gained on the final drive.”) On almost every Centro-matic song, frontman Will Johnson and multi-instrumentalist Scott Danbom sing in raspy yet sweet harmony, while distorted guitars weave chords around each other like lattices on a quilt and drummer Matt Pence makes like John Bonham on Quaaludes. The band's steadfast adherence to its M.O. has rendered it nearly impossible for its followers to tell the difference between a good Centro-matic song and a bad Centro-matic song. Although the band’s batting average is still remarkably high, their last couple of albums made room for what famed producer George Martin would call “potboilers”: songs that sounded pleasant but lacked substance. Fortunately, Fort Recovery rectifies this by being Centro-matic’s most concise and deliberate album yet.

Fort Recovery moves at a mid-tempo lope that avoids both the torpor of the band’s quieter material (see 1999's South San Gabriel Songs/Music) and the rousing crescendos of their louder material (see 1996's Redo the Stacks). Because of such, it takes a bit longer than usual for the songs to sink in. However, multiple listens forced me to pay attention to the lyrics, which contain some of Johnson’s most lucid writing yet. Many of the album’s songs are warnings to people who are about to receive a brutal comeuppance: a factory owner who stubbornly adheres to environmentally unsound practices (“Covered Up in Mines”), a scientist who betrays the trust of his comrades (“Calling Thermatico”), a corrupt corporate crony (“Patience for the Ride”) and a fair-weather friend (“For New Starts”). “Triggers and Trash Heaps” boasts the album’s best dis: “Your parameters and your reasons alike/Had the strength of mache/Or some Hollywood wedlock.” Every song on Fort Recovery oozes the wistfulness that characterizes Centro-matic’s best work, but the most heartrending is “Nothin’ I Ever Seen,” on which Johnson pays tribute to a friend who is about to die.

The lyrics aside, what keeps Fort Recovery so engaging despite its understated nature is the band’s infallible arranging and production skills. The best part of “Calling Thermatico” is its ending, in which all of the instruments drop out except for the falsetto vocal harmonies and tick-tock drumming. On the introduction to “I See Through You,” Johnson’s voice is run through a filter and drowned in a sea of reversed keyboards. When he launches into the second line, the keys and effects are permanently removed from the mix, producing a tension that carries itself through the remainder of the song. “Take the Maps and Run” sounds like a Spoon demo recorded in an apartment at midnight, with none of the instruments — hand percussion, acoustic guitar and Johnson’s croon — played at a level loud enough to wake the neighbors. Shambling songs like “Patience for the Ride” and “Take a Rake” come across as big-budget cousins of Pavement’s “Range Life,” placed right at the crossroads where indie-rock and alt-country shake hands.

Fort Recovery is a grower, the kind of album that won’t be recognized as one of the year’s best until long after the critics have compiled and published their year-end lists. Knowing Centro-matic, though, they’ll have an even better album in the can by that point anyway.

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