Will Johnson can seemingly do anything. A prolific songwriter, Johnson has spent over a decade playing indie rock in Denton, Texas’ Centro-Matic, putting out a succession of albums before splitting his eclecticism in half, looking for a more contemplative approach to making music while still performing with a band.
Keeping the same core members of Centro-Matic but allowing friends to contribute, Johnson gave birth to the quiet country of South San Gabriel. After releasing two albums under this name, and continuing with Centro-Matic as his main act, 2008’s Dual Hawks is the first time both bands have appeared on a release together.
On paper, South San Gabriel appear the most appealing, pushing a tender folk-oriented Americana — orchestrated and meditative, and at times faultless and sublime, while Centro-Matic live in the same unspectacular gritty country/rock suburb that seemingly exists in every state of America. There will be countless people who will champion these bands, but cross the border and there will be another, and another, and they will all at some point in time be stacked against each other. A few, like My Morning Jacket and Wilco will meet with popular appeal, while the rest will be tagged as sound-alikes or thrown into the same box without proper inspection. Centro-Matic, in you go.
In “Emma Jane” and “Kept on the Sky”, South San Gabriel tread the same candle-lit path Sparklehorse did in Good Morning Spider. Violins ebb and flow, fingers pick out little melodies on the guitar, and Johnson’s voice rides a straight subdued line, the latter sounding uncannily like Mark Linkous. The candle is blown out for “Of Evil/For Evil”, an upright bass stretching out, all taut and sinister as various strings gather round. At times Johnson’s voice is barely above a whisper and on the rare instances where Johnson’s vocal is matched with that of keyboardist Scott Danborn, like on album closer “From This I Will Awake”, do the songs rise out of the void and slowly flower, but too often the funeral pace betrays the hushed charm and twilight mood.
Already a few sheets to the wind writing this out, Centro-Matic sound like any competent Friday night Southern bar band. It’s accessible, earnest, rousing rock and roll — mildly anthemic but without any flash and firework. Piano keys get bashed, guitar solos do laps around the choruses and Johnson is singing something in a tight Texan whine, but I can’t make out what he’s saying and maybe that’s a good thing. There are moments like on “Strychnine, Breathless” and “All Your Farewells” where the band hit the right notes without sounding too formulaic, and it’s a triumphant moment, but too brief to imbue their vision of Dual Hawks with any real importance.
You know, there’s nothing wrong here. I can’t find anything I hate, but I can’t find anything I like. Centro-Matic is like the ordinary girl in the school line-up whose name you can’t remember anymore. Eyes, nose, mouth, hair. It’s all there. But standing right next to her is South San Gabriel, and while they both look a hell of a lot alike, she’s the one that lingered in your memory the longest.