BY JOHN SCHACHT
Twenty years in, Centro-Matic’s 11th full length certainly proves the Denton, TX quartet can still deliver the ferocious fuzz-rock they’ve practically trademarked. That their consistently strong output might actually work against them has become, as the title of their latest makes no bones about, the baseline from which they begin.
These dozen tracks still derive their basic songwriting fuel from an underdog status that, in today’s digital music universe, might seem less germane than it was when Centro-Matic began in the era of major label venality. And in lesser musical hands or from the mouths of the insincere, leader Will Johnson’s indignation might read as sour grapes. Instead, because of Centro-Matic’s unswerving commitment to craft and not trend, Johnson’s songwriting is grounded in compassion that transcends any petty resentment.
Johnson’s songs – including those written for quieter side-project South San Gabriel and his stark solo fare – have long cataloged those long odds in narratives that never yield to cliché or wallow in pity. The struggling fellow travelers, the friends lost to drink/drugs/depression, and all the failed and tragic relationships (including the band has with the “industry”) also carry in their DNA the passion and fire needed for redemption.
Though Take Pride may fall just short of the band’s best work, the Centro-Matic blend of fuzzy guitar hooks, rock-solid rhythms, accent keys, and sing-along choruses still makes long-time listeners wonder how the hell the band has never generated a bigger following, especially among the guitar-friendly indie rock crowd. Johnson has said this LP was a conscious return to the band’s fuzzy beginnings (a double-vinyl reissue of 1996’s Re-Do the Stacks was released the same day), but there’s consistent songwriting polish here — notably in the solid arrangements and those enormous hooks —that wasn’t as much a focus in those days of 23-song/snippet releases.
The fuzzy, GBV-like pop rock of tracks like first single “Salty Disciple” and LP highlight “Relative unto the Aces” only confirm the head-scratching nature of the band’s ongoing underdog status. The former bursts into immense sing-along choruses, while pulverizing guitar licks add a savage undertone to the latter’s head-bobbing beat. The two minutes of “Academy of Lunkers” blaze past in fuzzbox glory, fired by Matt Pence’s machine gun-triplets.
But it’s the more knotty emotional fare that draws existing Centro fans really close; it may also explain the lack of easy converts. Johnson can break a heart with the very best, and for some that depth of emotional entanglement with their music is too much. The dirge-y disc-ender “Through the Fog, Then Down” makes his talent plain while it shuffles through a friend’s collapse with compassion and elegance, accompanied like pallbearers by guitar feedback and Scott Danbom’s beautiful keyboard fills. There’s a hint of the band’s outdated alt-country tag in that song, but that’s never really been a comfortable fit because Centro-Matic’s just as often delivered tracks like “Anything Torn Out,” where swirling synth figures sound like Grandaddy melancholy.
Those emotional complexities also define the irresistible “Every Mission” — “When all the toxic tones you’re playing/Start playing you right back,” Johnson sings in a line that could be delivered into a mirror — and the sinister-sounding “On the Ride Back,” which highlight the double-edged nature of Centro-Matic songs. Through barre chord-crunch and barbed feedback, the latter deals frankly with a friend’s addiction, calling them out for their dishonesty — “we both went on your victory lap/for a time” — while offering a wary olive branch of hope. The song’s disintegration into abrasive noise, though, makes it clear the road back will be brutally difficult and all the more so for going it alone this time.
Few would exhibit the character that that kind of commitment and persistence embody. But they can they can find a supportive accompanying soundtrack in Centro-Matic to hear plainly whether it’s worth it.
DOWNLOAD: “Salty Disciple” “Take Pride In Your Long Odds” “Relative Unto the Aces”