What do we have here? Two bands, two albums, one package. Well yes, and no. While the bands have different names, and very different styles, South San Gabriel is the Centro-matic quartet with a few more musicians, and both are the brainchild of Will Johnson. Over the last ten years, Johnson has brought us nine Centro-matic albums, four EPs, five singles, two South San Gabriel albums, and two solo albums. To say the Denton, Tx. songwriter is prolific is something of an understatement.
Centro-matic is the vehicle for Johnsonâ€™s rock â€˜nâ€™ roll impulses. Full of distorted guitars, tuneful melodies, and two-part harmonies, the band brings to mind power-poppers like Big Star and The Dwight Twilley Band. The lyrics are somewhat obscure, and often difficult to decipher. Fortunately, the Centro-matic website allowed me to read along, and I have to say that the effort was worthwhile. As it turns out, the lyrics are more or less of a piece, and tell a story of the toll that being in a band, and on the road, takes on relationships both within and outside of the band. The writing is never facile. Johnson never goes for the cheap rhyme. Instead he crafts pictures using interesting word choices that you may not be used to hearing.
At first I was a bit put off by the sameness in the sound of the tracks, and the fact that most of them were taken at similar tempos, but repeated plays revealed the true identity of each song. One that is representative of the overall sound, and tempo, is â€œRemind Us Alive.â€
I found the South San Gabriel album to be the more inventive of the two discs here. This band represents the more mellow side of Will Johnson. At times it will remind you of the work of Mark Eitzelâ€™s American Music Club. The songs here are mournful, built of acoustic guitars, pedal steel, and string quartets. The string arrangements are of particular note, at times sadly romantic, at other times bleak and even harrowing. The lyrics are more literary, and sung in a hushed tone directly from a heart thatâ€™s been broken into a thousand pieces. Johnson looks back at a love thatâ€™s been lost, and speaks to her as if we werenâ€™t there listening. This sense of intimacy adds to the heartbreak, and perhaps you will recognize yourself in the mirror that Johnson holds up, as I did. â€œKept on the Slyâ€ is representative.
Two bands, two discs, one heart. Rather than showing off different styles in a self-aggrandizing way, these albums complement each other perfectly, and present two distinct, but not unrelated sides of one brilliant songwriter.