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 it's 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"