Centro-matic's music comes on like a sound from a distant dream, something new, yet unmistakably familiar. Clear images adding up to something a little vague, but in such a comforting way.
– Patterson Hood of Drive by Truckers
Patterson Hood's words capture the incongruous nature of Centro-matic's music by juxtaposing two seemingly disparate notions (new/familiar, clear/vague, distant/comforting) within his careful description. With full understanding of this intentional conflict within his music, Will Johnson, the leader of Centro-matic and South San Gabriel (as well as recording solo records), has done his newest fans, and those looking to be fans, a great service with the release of Dual Hawks.
This album actually consists of two fully imagined records, one by Centro-matic and one by South San Gabriel. As he explained in interviews leading into the release of Dual Hawks, the differences are significant between the two records even if many of the players are the same:
The South San Gabriel session was a lot more involved and calculated, for having all those people in it. The greater part of the Centro-matic session took place over 10 days. It was very fast. The majority was written and recorded in the studio. We wanted it to be spontaneous and raw, and kind of hearken back to the kind of recordings we used to make.
Johnson is an incredibly prolific artist. So much so, that it is hard to get a handle on his work from any one album. The simple way to explain it is that Centro-matic is the rock band, South San Gabriel is the acoustic band, and his solo work is often just him and a guitar.
The Centro-matic half of Dual Hawks begins the proceedings with ample slices of fuzzed-out guitar distortion. One can hear why Hood feels such a kinship with Centro-matic because both bands often use guitar noise and frayed vocals to convey their emotionalism.
Centro-matic, like DBT, also harbors a deep affinity for rock music's past before much of its power became diluted. This passage from "Remind Us Alive" speaks to this:
Looking back on them built in times and speakers stacked so high
We were scattered along them crowds of black shirts and cheap wine
Did you notice the frequencies will damage you for life?
As if the the saccharine songs they’re singing ain’t enough of a lie
This song serves as a salute for this generation that watched rock radio become overshadowed by MTV, and then later grew into adulthood as both outlets were lost. Johnson aptly captures that sense of loss. Looking at the way that most bands value style over substance so dramatically, Johnson's lyrics question if any of it was ever as real as we remembered.
Throughout the fine first half, Centro-matic does this lost rock ethic proud. A gem, "24", found late in the record is a Stonesy-rocker that sounds better than anything these ears have heard in years. If there were the right radio stations were still around to play it, it would be blasting out of rolled down windows all summer long.
Dual Hawks' second half shift to South San Gabriel comes rather abruptly, but it's dream-like essence feels immediately satisfying after the edgy Centro-matic set. SSG counters the rasped electricity in Johnson’s voice on the Centro-matic half with its own feeling of numbed reflection.
Johnson replaces his angular guitar allowing pedal steel and violin to become the dominant instruments, holding sway when they are present and becoming even more ethereal when not. SSG shapes a sonic suite, a string quartet of impending doom and ominous sentiment shown best in "When The Angels Will Put Out Their Lights":
The night is your new next of kin, and it’s right on time
Slide into your old revery
Poison come sit next to me, and watch me ride
The angels they sometimes must fall
To that devil that is taking my call
South San Gabriel's half of Dual Hawks evokes Ry Cooder’s Paris, TX soundtrack with lyrics. It's Texas all the way through.
By simultaneously taking on the conventions of indie folk and indie guitar rock, Johnson shatters both while also vastly improving upon them. With a self-awareness that his music merely exists as an extension of the classic sounds of those before him, Dual Hawks perfectly shows two sides of an important artist whose sound remains uniquely his own.
For those wondering where the great artists have gone, Will Johnson's continual achievements demand exploration for anyone interested in musicians who attempt to shoot for the highest level of artistry and oftentimes achieve it.
- Jim Markel