The last five years have been an interesting journey for Centro-matic and its fearless leader Will Johnson since Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers named the band's Fort Recovery his "favorite album of 2006 and honestly my favorite new album of the past five years." Hood also said, "Centro-matic is my favorite band that is still vital and intact." This is high praise indeed.
Although Centro-matic might be Johnson's best known musical outlet, he has others including South San Gabriel, which features the members of Centro-matic in a more acoustic, less rock environment, as well as his solo albums that usually feature only Johnson on vocals and guitar. Since Fort Recovery, it seems as though Johnson has been trying to draw stronger distinctions between his different bands.
In 2008, he released Dual Hawks which was a double album featuring one complete album each by Centro-matic and South San Gabriel. That album remains a creative success allowing new fans and old to see the distinctions between the two bands and the scope of Johnson and Co's artistry.
Since Dual Hawks, Johnson also took a step back from his own projects and became a collaborator with others. In 2009, he released a duo record with Jason Molina, and he served as the unofficial fifth member and touring drummer of the Monsters of Folk, the collaboration between Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis from Bright Eyes, M. Ward of She & Him, and Jim James of My Morning Jacket. Johnson, along with Centro-matic mate Scott Danborn, also played on Patterson Hood's Murdering Oscar (and other love songs) album and became part of the Screwtopians, Hood's backing band that toured in support of that album.
Johnson wasn't the only busy member of Centro-matic. Drummer Matt Pence has become a top producer and engineer working out of his Echo Lab studio in Texas. Since the release of Dual Hawks, Pence produced Jason Isbell's second solo album (Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit) and Feral Fire by the fine Tennessee band Glossary.
All of these other commitments must have given Johnson as well as Pence a chance to think about Centro-matic going forward. Candidate Waltz, their first album in three years, shows the growth and the growing distinction of what Centro-matic means as a band in its own right. While Dual Hawks served as a way to distinguish and define Johnson's different ensembles, this new Centro-matic album brings the band further towards rock. It is their most immediate sounding record, firmly built on Johnson and Pence similar to the Roling Stones' foundation of Keith Richard's guitar playing and Charlie Watts drumming.
Candidate Waltz barely cracks the 30 minute mark, and it takes no prisoners. Eschewing Johnson's usual sense of the dreamy and etherial, the album is a little more skeletal, a little less atmospheric. Johnson's glorious rasp of a voice soars over cannon-like drums crunching guitars capturing the most rocking dynamics of the Drive-By Truckers without that band's more southern-fried edges.
The opening track "Against The Line" announces that Centro-matic has something different in mind on Candidate Waltz. It begins with a funky, yet rocking synth loop before the guitar and drums kick in creating a vibe similar to Pink Floyd's epic "Run Like Hell" from The Wall. This is followed by punk guitar crossed with Stones-styled rocker ("All The Talkers") and the frenetically paced "Iso-Residue" which recalls the early punk-pop sounds of Elvis Costello. "Estimate x 3" is perhaps the first song that sounds like old Centro-matic using lyrical images that Johnson explains can "leave the listener to decide what to make of it."
"Only In My Double Mind" serves as the album's centerpiece. On one hand it features the band at its most rocking with exploding drums and guitars, but it also shows how by stripping things down on Candidate Waltz, Centro-matic has also revealed more of its pop and melodic side. Underneath all of the layers, a Buddy Holly sound emerges. This sensibility carries through to the next three tracks ("Solid States" "Shadow, Follow Me" "Mercedes Blast") which sound like early Tom Petty, another artist who has always been able to remain modern sounding without losing touch with the earliest elements of rock and roll.
Candidate Waltz serves as an important reboot for Centro-matic after a long recording break. The band has paired their approach down to great effect. Taken as a whole, the album sounds like a tight set of songs that an unknown opening band might deliver on their way to blowing away the headliner. On "Only In My Double Mind" Johnson sings these lyrics:
History, harmony, pullin’ back through time
Only in my troubled, double mind
The mystery, the clarity, all the things I find
Only in my troubled, double mind
Those words almost feel like an acceptance of Johnson's own creative duality.
Candidate Waltz allows Centro-matic to serve his rock influences more fully. By combining that with the super-tight support from Matt Pence and his bandmates, Centro-matic should finally emerge from the creative wheel of Johnson's prolific output to be recognized as the fine stand alone band that they are.
- Jim Markel
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