Audio: Listen to the commentary
Last month’s New York Times feature on the Denton music scene boasted only a passing mention of Centro-Matic, the low-fi, high-octane brainchild of singer-songwriter Will Johnson that has spent a decade proving melodic, moving rock music can sound glorious without sounding pretty.
The Times treatment could have been a slight, an oversight, or maybe even a technical disqualification: Although the quartet is based in Denton, Johnson lives in Austin now. But more likely, it was a backhanded confirmation that Centro-Matic has established itself as the anchor of a vital college-town music scene, bridging the scruffy charm of such campus favorites as Record Hop and Fishboy with the ethereal eclecticism of such critically acclaimed bands as mom and Midlake.
Johnson and his band mates attempt to up the artistic ante with Dual Hawks, a double CD that pairs 11 new Centro-Matic recordings with 12 tracks by the band’s atmospheric side project, South San Gabriel. It’s intended as a fan-friendly, value-conscious vehicle for two different sides of Johnson’s artistry, but it comes across as an impressive Centro-matic album that fulfills the group’s pop promise accompanied by a bonus disc.
“I’m trying every day to improve and not conform,” Johnson sings. Indeed, the new album achieves a compelling blend of spontaneity and clarity that 2003’s Love You Just the Same and 2006’s Fort Recovery only hinted at. The dense arrangements unfold as jagged layers: The drums crackle while chiming keyboards and tambourines speckle the wall of fuzz-drenched guitars. But the driving force is still Johnson’s voice, a raspy, sometimes strangled tenor purposely over-modulated and distorted to enhance the urgency of such rockers as the Wilco-like “Quality Strange,” the gospel-flavored “Twenty-Four,” and the disarmingly soulful “Every Single Switch.”
It’s easy to pigeonhole South San Gabriel as the softer side of Centro-Matic – if Johnson were Neil Young, South San Gabriel’s half of Dual Hawks would be the Harvest Moon to Centro-Matic’s Ragged Glory. Johnson’s voice is hushed and in some ways, more strained in this setting: Surrounded by rustic guitars, dissonant strings and ambient keyboards, he rubs against the melancholy arrangements but rarely elevates them beyond pastoral soundscapes.
It’s not as simple as saying that Will Johnson is better when he rocks – because anyone who has seen his solo concerts knows that he can captivate a crowd with just an acoustic guitar. But South San Gabriel treads on haunting ground already well-covered by acts like Sparklehorse, Band of Horses and Joe Henry, while Centro-matic casts its net in the uncharted waters that lie between tenderness and turbulence.
As Johnson spits out images of soldering irons and switches, thumbs his nose at deceitful women whose smiles get them on guest lists for life, and interchangeably counts stars and scars, Centro-Magic summons an emotional intensity on Dual Hawks that relies not on volume but on brute urgency, dwarfing its alter-ego in the same way that a soaring rocket overwhelms a floating kite.
Reviewer David Okamoto is a content production manager at Yahoo in Dallas and a music critic whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone, ICE Magazine and the Dallas Morning News. Centro-Matic will videotape a concert DVD on June 28 at the Granada Theater.