Release Date: Jun 21, 2011
Record label: Undertow Music Collective
Genre(s): Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock, Alternative Country-Rock
For a band as wildly prolific as Centro-Matic, who released no fewer than six albums between 1999 and 2000, a gap of five years between LPs is both unusual and a bit worrying, but Will Johnson and his bandmates have returned to action with 2011's Candidate Waltz, a set of songs that confirms they haven't lost touch with what made them special during their time away. Running through nine songs in just under 33 minutes, Candidate Waltz isn't an epic, and in many respects that works to its favor -- while the album's studiocraft is excellent and Johnson's instincts as a songwriter are as sure as ever, this music sounds fresh, confident, and just a bit edgy, not like the work of a band whose members have been worrying over their material while biding their time in the studio. Producers Scott Solter and Matt Pence have given these performances a sound that's careful and well constructed without squeezing the life out of the band, and Johnson and his multi-instrumentalist partners Scott Danbom, Mark Hedman, and Pence have summoned up a web of sounds behind the songs that's clever and emotionally resonant at the same time, complementing the thoughtful and frequently melancholy heart that lurks beneath Johnson's tunes no matter how cheerful or rollicking they seem on the surface.
A funny thing happened on my second spin through Candidate Waltz: I caught myself singing along. It was surprising, but not because Centro-Matic’s Will Johnson—who also records as South San Gabriel and under his own name—hasn’t written catchy songs before. He has, especially in Centro-Matic. South San Gabriel dwells more in sprawling, pedal-steeled indie-folk that has its own charm, but they’re not sing-along songs.
The ragged rock and roll that Will Johnson and his band Centro-matic have been putting out for almost 15 years may not be the most hip thing going, but that is part of its appeal. There is nothing self-conscious or self-referential about the band's work. Johnson is an unassuming frontman, but not in the fey, navel-gazing way so many new (and dull) frontmen are.
Will Johnson, the main force behind Centro-matic, seems to be perpetually releasing something. A solo album, a record with one of his bands, or a supergroup recording seems to always be coming out. Throw in EPs, cassingles, and the like, and it’s hard to imagine where this all comes from. That there have been five years between proper Centro-matic albums (aside from a split with Johnson’s South San Gabriel) seems either unlikely or inevitable depending on how you look at it, but at any rate Candidate Waltz marks the latest work in Johnson’s career and it’s worth slowing down for.
"The mystery, the clarity/all the things I find," huffs Will Johnson on "Only in My Double Mind," a rusted stomp of bare-knuckle simplicity at the center of Centro-matic's 10th full-length. Consider it a summary of the prolific Monsters of Folk member's balancing act over the past decade, alternating between the iridescent avant-Americana of South San Gabriel and Centro-matic's ragged indie anthems. Having bridged this double-barrel mentality on 2008 SSG/CM split Dual Hawks, Johnson strips back Candidate Waltz, a taut collection of abstract portraits about interpersonal politics ("Estimate x 3") and trust broken over distance and time (haunting ballad "Shadow, Follow Me").