Centro-Matic‘s only flaw may lie in their prolific output. It’s hard to focus on one achievement because the moment you do, they’re off releasing another album of equal achievement. And while their output is consistently better than other prolific artists (Ryan Adams immediately comes to mind), there is this nagging feeling that the band has sacrificed a masterpiece or two at the hands of simply divulging too much too soon.
If this minor complaint—the desire to have everyone recognize how amazingly good this woefully underappreciated band is—wasn’t enough, leader Will Johnson started a second band a few years ago under the name South San Gabriel. Essentially using the same supporters as Centro-Matic, South San Gabriel provides these Texans with an outlet for their atmospheric side.
Texas is a big state, I sure wouldn’t want to disparage the residents of one area for the actions of another, and I sure as hell won’t make the mistake with anything Johnson has his fingers in. Far be it for me to complain if he wants to package both areas of his muse in a single jewel box, one that comes at the price of a single, I might add. So call it one 2008’s best bargains and one the albums you can start with when you’re first becoming acclimated with this prodigious band(s) and this enormously talented musician.
Call it one of 2008’s best albums too, while you’re at it. Bargain pricing aside, Dual Hawks represents everything that’s great about American underground rock music: next to every challenging element is a melodic hook, housed in a unique formula that sounds both reassuringly familiar and wonderfully unique.
Johnson sounds introspective on the Centro-Matic disc, carefully considering the road that led him to a second decade of unwarranted obscurity and tiredly pressing on to the next ubiquitous college town.
On “Remind Us Alive,” he remembers his youth when the ticket out was a metal cover band. At the time, it seemed like a legitimate career choice, not knowing that there was plenty of make-believe going on besides the layers of eyeliner and hairspray.
“Looking back on built in times and the speaker stacks up high
We were scattered along in crowds of black shirts and cheap wine
Did you notice the frequencies will damage you for life?
As if the saccharine songs they’re singing ain’t enough of a lie”
Unlike Wilco‘s “Heavy Metal Drummer,” a song that mines similar introspection, it’s hard to tell if Johnson is looking back with elderly nostalgia, or with the contempt that he now knows that it was all bullshit.
Later tracks like “Twenty Four” don’t provide any more insight, other than the possibility that Johnson is showing the initial signs of weariness while still maintaining his original vision. “I’m trying everyday to improve and not conform / Stick with what we’re fighting for / Like the simple times before, at twenty-four.” It’s as close to a mission statement as we’ve heard, and sadly, as close as we’ve seen him considering finality.
The moment you’ve realized that this is one of the best Centro-Matic albums of their career is the same moment that you’ve noticed there’s another disc waiting.
The South San Gabriel side is a relief. These are therapeutic soundscapes, sparse with strings and occasional horns, filling what can only be described as a creative need within Will. Yes, there are times when the songs could be easily listed as Centro-Matic without much debate and even others that could be with some minor tweaking. But this is obviously the creation of another mindset, and one that has been painstakingly pieced together.
To drift off in S.S.G.’s contribution is to miss some of its complexities. The competing drum patterns and endless vocal loops of “When The Angels Will Put Out There Lights,” the surprising clarinet of “The Arc And The Cusp,” the nearly gospel quality of Johnson and Scott Danbom on “From This I Will Awake,” yes, this is an effort where all involved have considered much and left much to the imagination.
I’ll admit that I’m a bigger fan of the Centro-Matic side then of the South San Gabriel, but I was pleasantly surprised at how much I did enjoy the second disc. I won’t enter the debate on why a second entity even exists or why now, with this project, there’s a need to house them together. What’s puzzling is how either project is still entrenched under the radar and how an album this good can’t manage to lift them out of the Econoline and into some better accommodations.
If Will Johnson’s only sin was his prodigious output and lack of a corralling method, then a firmer hand may be in order. But how could anyone raise a heated pen to this, a streamlined collection of impressive material from two entities? It’s the work of not just one, but several talents that are deserving of more attention than what they’ve currently been provided.
Hopefully, by throwing both projects together at the same time, someone will emulate the bird of prey’s visual acuity and notice one of the country’s best-kept secrets. Dual Hawks not only ranks as one of either band’s best efforts, it flies above most anything else you’ll hear too.
Previously: GLONO Video: Centro-matic and South San Gabriel.
GLONO Video: Centro-matic & South San Gabriel, Part 1
GLONO Video: Centro-matic & South San Gabriel, Part 2