Album review and MP3: Centro-matic’s brilliant, economical ‘Candidate Waltz’

Centro-matic Candidate Waltz 2011 Undertow Music

Candidate Waltz

In the time since Centro-matic’s last record, 2008′s Dual Hawks, lead singer, guitarist and principal songwriter Will Johnson has been as busy as ever. The band itself has kept a relatively low profile while Johnson has diffused his energy across several other projects.

Johnson has been recording and touring as the drummer for the supergroup Monsters of Folk, making a record with close friend Jason Molina of Magnolia Electric Co., embarking on two solo living room tours, and quietly releasing a fine EP of solo material. The seeming result is that he and his bandmates returned to the studio with a more refined and focused energy. The band’s new release, Candidate Waltz, is the best collection of songs that Centro-matic has produced in years.

Over the past 15 years, Centro-matic has remained amazingly consistent at a time when the indie sphere increasingly emphasizes (one might say bastardizes) innovation at the expense of quality content. The band has retained the same lineup over that time and has become known for doing essentially one thing, but doing it incredibly well: producing sprawling and urgent rock tunes saturated with distorted, melancholy guitar and punctuated by melodic drumming.

From the first notes of Candidate Waltz, however, we hear the band embarking on new territory. A percolating synth beat eases us into “Against The Line” and remains there throughout the song, just below the surface. The band’s hallmarks are still there though. A fevered and clanging guitar is the next to enter, followed by the familiar crack of drummer Matt Pence’s snare. The addition of looped synthesizer is a minor change, but it significantly alters the feel of the song and sets the tone for the rest of the album.

These songs see the band stretching its limbs in new directions, while not feeling the need to depart wholesale from its signature sound. The songs display a creative economy: guitar riffs are clean and simple and bass lines syncopate the melodies in tandem with the drums. While Johnsons’s lyrics are characteristically oblique, they have been distilled to the point that the swirl of imagery is always refreshing and never tiring. The words are often less about communication than they are about creating a phonetic fabric to sit amongst the other parts of the composition.

Some songs constitute a more drastic departure than others. On “Only In My Double Mind” a minimalistic arrangement is used to maximum effect as thundering piano and strong but sparse drumming take center stage while still leaving space for Johnson’s layered vocals. The quieter and rhythmically-driven “Estimate x 3″ begins innocently, but the reemergence of synthesizer during the bridge propels it into slow jam territory. Over the refrain “Give me what you want, don’t tell me,” hand claps and falsetto backing vocals produce an R&B-like effect that creates what is possibly the catchiest minute and a half the band has ever recorded.

In contrast to Centro-matic’s past few releases, not a single song here disappoints. The ambling “Solid States” is dominated by buoyant piano which provides a refreshing textural contrast to the ubiquitous guitar fuzz. “All The Talkers” is a bouncy and attitude-infused anthem that contains the most literal lyrics on the album and provides what may be considered its thesis. It paints the scene of a bar full of indifferent and chatty patrons who are eventually won over by the determined energy of the band on stage. As Johnson sings “it was not like the night before,” there is no doubt as to the band’s identity.

Candidate Waltz is a mature record that demonstrates the wisdom of a band that knows its strengths but is also leery of sitting still for too long. If the length of past releases is any indication, by including only 33 minutes of music Centro-matic likely left quite a bit of material on the cutting room floor. What did make the cut has been executed to exacting detail, especially with regard to texture and dynamics. The album is wonderful in its simplicity and inventiveness, to the extent that the first listen is rewarding while subsequent spins only deepen the listener’s affection.

Centro-matic performs at Off Broadway in St. Louis on July 5.

Centro-matic – “Only in My Double Mind”

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Thursday Morning Music News: Wilco announces St. Louis show, Tom Petty disses Michele Bachmann and Stephen Colbert rocks on


Wilco is releasing the new album The Whole Love on September 27 and touring this fall. St. Louis date is October 4 at the Peabody.

Read Bruce Springsteen’s powerful eulogy for his friend, Clarence Clemons.

88.1 KDHX looks back at the first half of 2011 with lists of DJ favorite albums and top spins, January through June.

Women’s rights group Between Friends will be protesting Odd Future’s set at Pitchfork Festival.

The hackers of LulzSec say they’re retiring out of boredom. If only the Kings of Leon would do the same.

Billboard considers what Google+ means for the music biz.

NewsCorp sells Myspace to advertising network Specific Media for a cool $35 million. Not quite as cool as the $580 million the company paid for it six years ago.

Spinner talks to DJ Shadow about his forthcoming album, new video and single “I Gotta Rokk.” The album, The Less You Know, the Better, will be released September 5.

A new anthology from Throwing Muses is due out in September.

You knew it was going to happen. It was only a matter of time. Groupon is now a record label. Sort of. David Gray has released Lost and Found—Live in Dublin on the daily deal site.

If you run a fansite for Morrissey, be prepared to take the heat.

Lady Gaga has a fashion blog.

Chuck Berry will finally get that statue in the Delmar Loop.

Michele Bachmann likes Tom Petty. The feeling is not mutual.

Roger Daltrey is finding that touring isn’t what it used to be.

My Morning Jacket, Andrew Bird, Sondre Lerche, the Airborne Toxic Event and more appear on The Muppets: Green Album, doing covers of Muppet standards. The album is due out August 23.

Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock is working on a film score for Queens of Country, a movie about a really obsessive country music fan.

Stephen Colbert’s awesome music week continues with a performance with the Black Belles. Must see.

Big week for Jill Scott and Bon Iver on the charts. Scott notches first No. 1 album on Billboard 200 and Bon Iver checks in at No. 2.

Glen Campbell announces that he has Alzheimer’s disease. But he’s going to make a go at one last tour.

Halfway home: The 88.1 KDHX midyear lists

Some would say it’s too soon to look back at the year in music, but for me, it’s never to soon to reflect on the stacks of CDs and gigs of MP3s that have already inundated the storage space I call home.

So, with great pleasure, I present to you the first annual 88.1 KDHX midyear review of new music. Special thanks to Nick Acquisto, Nico Leone, Kat Touschner and all the KDHX DJs and staff members who helped pull this off.

Midyear 2011: 88.1 KDHX DJ top 10 albums

Midyear 2011: 88.1 KDHX top album spins, national and local

Enjoy, and here’s to even more great new music in the months ahead!

Concert review and setlist: Toad the Wet Sprocket rocks the past, present and future at the Pageant, Monday, June 27

Toad the Wet Sprocket at the Pageant in St. Louis, June 27, 2011

Kris Embry

It was an evening of straightforward, acoustically driven rock & roll, with just a hint of nostalgia, when Toad the Wet Sprocket took the stage Monday night in the chilly confines of the Pageant.

(Seriously, it was so cold before the show that my wife purchased a long-sleeve, thermal K-SHE shirt at the Pageant merch store, sparking a mini fashion revolution among some of the other women in our section.)

Toad the Wet Sprocket came of age in the late ’80s and early ’90s, during a particularly fertile period in music history, when “alternative” was still exactly that, and no one knew what teen spirit smelled like. Singer, guitarist and primary songwriter Glen Phillips asked the audience how many people had been with the band since the days of its first record, Bread and Circus (1989). It was obvious that that was a good portion of the audience. He thanked the crowd for its support and for having stuck with the band for so long.

Taking its name from a Monty Python skit, the band is currently touring in support of All You Want, a new recording of 11 of the band’s older songs. Like many other bands, it is a record label that owns the original recordings (Sony, in Toad’s case), so the band has rerecorded those songs to take ownership of them again. The setlist reflected the songs on All You Want, but also covered songs from all of the band’s records.

Toad emphasized its later material, however, especially Dulcinea and the band’s last studio album, Coil. Of course, the rockers played many of their best known songs, including “All I Want,” which was the band’s biggest hit, and “Good Intentions,” which appeared on the soundtrack from the TV show Friends. But they played some lesser known songs as well, including some quieter, more reflective songs, such as “Crowing” and “Windmills” (two of my personal favorites).

The opening song, “Something’s Always Wrong,” set the tone for the evening and reflects the band’s musical sensibility: smart, acoustic pop rock, with an occasional undertone of sadness and resignation. Glenn Phillips alternated between acoustic guitar and a Fender Telecaster, while lead guitarist Todd Nichols primarily played a Telecaster as well, occasionally switching to a Les Paul and one other guitar. Nichols guitar playing was clean and polished, while the rhythm section, consisting of bassist Dean Dinning and drummer Randy Guss, locked into a steady groove.

The band’s touring keyboard player, Nashville-based singer-songwriter Jonathan Kingham, opened the show, with a brief, yet warm, acoustic set of only five songs. Kingman’s earnest acoustic songs played well to the Toad audience. His songs cover a lot territory, from a song about a poodle to a “She’s So California,” a song about a gorgeous, older lady — a lady whom, as Kingman said, “you can’t afford if you’re a musician.” But the highlight of his set was the last song, a funky acoustic cover of Bobby Brown’s “Every Little Step.” The song included a semi-improvised dance/rap segment that even managed to work in a reference to the venue’s coat check/soft drinks stand. Now that’s some mad rhyming skill! Kingman also played mandolin on a couple songs, and even played both mandolin and steel guitar on the final song of the evening, “Walk On the Ocean.”

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Concert review and setlist: Little Feat doesn’t fail at Old Rock House, Sunday, June 26

Little Feat 2007 by Hank Randall / Hank Randall

The melting pot location between the north and south partly explains the appreciation running deep among local music fans for Southern-style rock. Little Feat — with its mix of blues, country, rock and Cajun — is one of several ’70s bands that have kept St. Louis entertained for 40 years.

As its tour schedule and the buses and large semi-trailer parked on Hickory St. outside the Old Rock House last night indicate, Little Feat does not fall into the category of groups with one original member backed by hired guns playing the casino circuit solely looking for a paycheck. Formed in 1969, the band of engaged musicians still writing original material boasts one original founding member (Keyboard player Bill Payne) and three members (guitarist Paul Barrere, bassist Kenny Gradney and percussionist Sam Clayton) who joined in 1973 in time for the band’s third album and first classic slab of vinyl, Dixie Chicken. Guitarist Fred Tackett, a “newer” member, joined in 1988 and while the passing of original drummer Richie Hayward last year leaves a void, timekeeper Gabe Ford fills it solidly.

Proverbially dipping their toes in the water, Little Feat began the evening with a short instrumental warm-up to set the levels before launching into one of the songs everybody came to hear — “Dixie Chicken.” A deep catalog and some fine live chops allow the band to get past playing such classics solely as encore pieces these days. While four members of the current sextet played on the original track, the group moved out of the shadow of co-founder Lowell George long ago as Barrere took on the role of stage band leader.

Without a recent studio album full of originals to promote, the setlist relied heavily on the band’s ’70s output as two-thirds on the tracks came from the band’s first seven albums. Though, Payne duly noted early in the set that the band is currently working on a new album, the audience used these new songs as drink and smoke breaks.

Armed with a fleet of Fender Stratocasters, Tackett and Barrere weaved intricate, extended solos without extensive noodling while taking much of the lead vocal work. Though, Clayton added his well-worn blues style vocals to new track “Mellow Down Easy” as well as classic Feat number “Feel the Groove.” Both a writer and singer, Payne took the mic for new song “Mellow Down Easy” and his older Feat numbers.

Turning the Southern rock/blues down for a bit, Tackett grabbed his mandolin while Barrere slung his acoustic over as the band played “New Dehli Freight Train” from Time Loves a Hero. A beautiful version of their country rock standard “Willin’” moved into a cover of The Band classic “The Weight” with Barrere on vocals backed by shaky help from the audience.

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KDHX photography highlights: June 16-25

The best thing about summer? Concerts. This week in photos features everything from local favorites to once rock ‘n roll, now reality TV superstars. See the likes of Slaid Cleaves, Motley Crue and Poison, Parachute, Slothpop, Matt & Kim, Company of Thieves and KDHX’s own Harvest Sessions with Brian and Kip.

Be sure to check back next Monday for this weeks photos! You can also check out the full galleries at

Company of Thieves

Company of Thieves at the Firebird. Ben Mudd

Brian and Kip

Brian and Kip at Harvest Sessions. Sara Finke

Motley Crue

Motley Crue at Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre. Sam Africano


Slothpop at Cicero's. Abby Gillardi

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Love Lies Bleeding in Opera Theatre St. Louis’ Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni, one of the most performed operas in the world, is a two-act opera by Mozart that skillfully blends comedy, melodrama and the supernatural. Despite being widely performed, Opera Theatre St. Louis has nonetheless boldly added it to its repertoire for the current season.

Widely considered a masterpiece the opera Mozart’s tale revolves around a charismatic nobleman named Don Giovanni who spends most of his time satisfying his rapacious appetite for women. Conquest follows conquest, until finally he becomes devoid of moral character, becoming a vain and vacuous husk.

The plot revolves around Don Giovanni’s tragic decline and fall. His insatiable appetite for deviance has broken hearts and made enemies determined to have their revenge. As the opera progresses he moves closer and closer to a horrific end.

He finally gets his comeuppance after three attempted liaisons go terribly wrong. First there is Elvira, a scorned woman who despite everything that he has done to her still believes in him. Second is Anna, the daughter of the Commendatore, whom Don Giovanni murders while attempting her seduction. A distraught Donna Anna must delay her marriage to her intended, Don Ottavio, who as a result is displeased with the scoundrel. Finally there is Zerlina, whom Don Giovanni unsuccessfully tries to steal from her fiancé, Masetto.

His actions are not without consequence as an alliance between Donna Elvira, Donna Anna, and Zerlina is forged. Stuck in the middle of all of this is Don Giovanni’s faithful servant, Leporello who puts up with way too much from his master.

The alliance runs into a rough patch because some girls just like bad men. This is the case for Elvira whose lust for revenge wanes when she gives pause to believe that reconciliation with Don Giovanni is possible. Her attempt meets with catastrophic results.

The tension builds throughout the second act as the lothario is hunted down and sought out by his enemies. Eventually Don Giovanni’s actions result in his supernatural destruction which forever changes the lives of those who have been avenged.

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Concert review: Matt and Kim throw a smiling dance party at the Pageant, Thursday, June 23

Matt & Kim at the Pageant, St. Louis, June 23, 2011

Kelsey McClure

Last night Matt & Kim blew up the Pageant in St. Louis with just a synth keyboard and a drum set.

Portland’s the Thermals tore through their opening set Pixies-style, complete with skull crushing versions of their hits “I Don’t Believe You,” “We Were Sick,” and “Now We Can See.” The sardine-packed pit swayed, roared and clapped along with the thump of drummer Westin Glass’s bass drum and the silver edge of lead singer and guitarist Hutch Harrison’s distorted guitar. They warmed the crowd to perfection with their indie-punk West Coast energy.

After the Thermals, the stage techs rolled Matt & Kim’s black, elevated platform, which supported both Kim’s drum set and Matt’s double synthesizer/keyboard kit, to the forefront of the stage. In anticipation the crowd cheered and clapped at the Misfits T-shirt-clad roadie. One rowdy drinker with a sideways red hat in the pit was booted by security before the party kicked off.

Soon, the houselights dimmed as Jay Z’s “Empire State of Mind” melted over the speakers. When the houselights returned, Matt & Kim were dancing the length of the stage like Cardinals cheerleaders, spinning towels, hyping the crowd with Pixie-stick smiles and wide-gaited leg gallops.

The duo settled down at their instruments, asked the audience a quick, “You all okay up in here?” and launched into “Block After Block,” from 2010’s Sidewalks. Matt’s keyboards weaved an electric tapestry that Kim’s heady drums played off with grin-inducing alacrity. The song swirled into the rafters as it slid into its double-time section hurtling toward furious conclusion. The crowd cheered back the overdubbed “yeahs,” as the song came full circle on its bouncy chorus.

Matt keyed into “Good Ol’ Fashioned Nightmare” after offering up some words about how beautiful St. Louis is, how much Matt and Kim both loved Forest Park and how gorgeous the day was, an omen for how amazing the evening’s show was destined to be. Matt’s energy was only trumped by Kim’s, who thumped into “Red Paint” with a gigantic smile and glee in her eye. Her energy bled into the crowd, which gyrated, waved and bounced in time with the floor tom-led emo-power tune.

During a section toward the middle of the song, Kim stopped drumming and leapt onto her bass drum and conducted the crowd with her drumsticks. When the section ended, she popped back down on her drum stool without missing a single beat or allowing the smile to slip from her lips.

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