Centro-Matic/ South San Gabriel : Dual Hawks

Dual Hawks is a rare breed of an album – a split LP released in conjunction from Will Johnson’s two primary songwriting outlets, Centro-Matic and South San Gabriel. The strategic dual release makes sense coming from an artist with Johnson’s prolificacy. By my count he’s now been behind eight Centro-Matic albums, four from South San Gabriel (nine & three, respectively, if you count South San Gabriel Songs/Music as a Centro-Matic release, as it was in the States), three EPs, two solo albums, one split EP (with Vermont), and a smattering of tour and web exclusives. Last year’s Operation Motorcide “EP” consisted of eight songs and 33 minutes of music not included on 2006’s Fort Recovery, and unsurprisingly did not compromise on quality. All told, Johnson has to be considered among today’s most consistent (and generous) songwriters – it’s hard to pinpoint a single release that does not live up to his very high standards. Ryan Adams, take note.

The problem with accumulating such a voluminous back catalog over a 12-year stretch is that, no matter how good you are, you only have so many tricks up your sleeve. Most of the Centro-Matic side of Dual Hawks adheres to the mid-tempo, Crazy Horse-styled arrangements the band has perfected over the years, and will sound revelatory in its precision to fans of that particular genre who are new to the band. There isn’t a whole lot of difference listening to the 2008 version of Centro-Matic than, say, the 2000 version that created All The Falsest Hearts Can Try. The production has improved (more a result of better resources than a new approach), and the band now believes in concision when selecting what tracks make the cut, but for the most part the songs are interchangeable. But for as predictable as they’ve become over the years, there’s hardly a rough edged, hard-Americana unit playing today that can stand next to Centro-Matic in either quality or consistency—they don’t so much employ a unique brand of rock ‘n roll as absolutely own a very well-worn form of it.

Feedback-fueled bursts of electric guitar have always dominated Centro-Matic’s more aggressive songs, and on Dual Hawks they erupt at all the right moments, propelling Johnson’s obtuse poetics and throaty growl right along. Long time producer/drummer Matt Pence has once again intuitively captured this trademark Centro-Matic sound on tape, continuing the string of noteworthy albums that now dates back well over a decade. In that sense, Dual Hawks fits right in with an already impressive back catalog. It doesn’t improve on what has come before, but rather adds 11 more songs that will all sound great blaring out of cranked up amps in mid-sized theatres and clubs.

Dual Hawks begins with a stretch of rockers that sound instantly familiar. “Rat Patrol And DJs” recalls the lo-fi, bedroom hard rock of their first album, Redo The Stacks, for its first 15 seconds. Then Pence’s drums burst in, reinforcing the fact that Johnson’s song structures haven’t changed much since those early days—and that’s for the better. The chorus is given a brightening by a tambourine and Johnson’s twisting of the central melody with his best falsetto. “Two Gold Seats Reserved” is most closely related to Fort Recovery‘s “For New Starts” – each featuring a winding vocal melody and high, piercing electric guitar lines. “Remind Us Alive” works more of a controlled tempo, but then explodes into an extended solo that dominates the second half of the song, a familiar (and welcome) Johnson trick to anyone who has listened before.

Most of the rest of the Centro-Matic half of Dual Hawks rewards without surprising. It’s the final third of the album that sees the band venturing past the clearly established boundaries they’ve set for themselves. “Counting The Scars” is a stripped down, heartfelt acoustic ballad with some of Johnson’s most straightforward lyrics. “Twenty Four” is shimmering country rock—its themes of lost youth and nostalgia resonate deeply—and is perhaps the most immediate song the band has ever produced. And closer “A Critical Display Of Snakes” is a strong link to the SSG side of Dual Hawks – the whining violin echoing South San Gabriel’s more spaciously arranged sonic adventures.

That said, the South San Gabriel half works as a virtual counterpoint to Centro-Matic in both style and dynamics, if not theme. Where the latter hits with blunt force, an exercise in visceral music making, the former houses songs that gradually evolve through long, slow stretches of time, acting as Centro-Matic’s moodier, more cerebral kid brother. Johnson’s vocals and lyrics inevitably come to the fore in these quieter moments, but his lyrics and melodies are often more opaque when fronting SSG. Musically, South San Gabriel songs unwind with a yawning, spacious elegance. They may not burst out of the speakers with Centro-Matic’s kinetic energy, but there is often a sublime beauty that makes them equally rewarding.

“Emma Jane” opens the album with some gorgeous acousitc guitar/violin interplay. When Johnson’s vocals finally enter after 2 minutes he does his best to not overpower the established mood, opting instead to sing in a near whisper to a lost love. Lines like “remember the nights that we had, the nervousness just ripped through our eyes” hit more for their direct emotion than any kind of hummable melody. “Kept On The Sly” works as a more subdued version of “A Critical Display of Snakes,” gentle acoustics and violins ride over the song’s spry beat, again with Johnson’s vocals almost hiding behind the song’s mood instead of establishing it. “Trust To Lose,” the first released single, begins somewhat reluctantly, with a sort of vaguely Middle-Eastern violin part that gives way to and then intertwines with acoustic strumming, just starting to make an impression before fading out after the 2 minute mark. And that’s the way it goes for most of the South San Gabriel disc. It takes patience, and perhaps a certain quiet, lonesome listening environment, for these songs to be fully effective.

Both halves of Dual Hawks work in their own way as concise, tightly executed albums, with songs more effective for their strength in numbers than for any noticeable sense of individuality. On recent albums, songs like “To Unleash The Horses Now,” “Flashes And Cables” and “Triggers And Trash Heaps,” among others, stood out, offering the chance for a great single to catapult the band to the deserving next level of fame. To these ears the only song here with the same potential for mass appeal is “Twenty Four,” but with its shambling country rock feel seems unlikely to resonate with the indie-snob crowd. Long time fans of these bands will revel though in the familiarity of these 23 songs, some could even argue that Dual Hawks is the best work Johnson has ever released. Cynics are sure to harp on the fact that it offers nothing new to the long established Centro-Matic/SSG formula. But that’s not the point—no Centro-Matic or South San Gabriel release has ever been a dramatic departure from its predecessor. Instead we get another 11 engaging, gritty rock songs from one, and 12 stately mood pieces from the other, both of which will be championed by fans without significantly expanding the fanbase. They’ll be missing out though, Will Johnson’s dual incarnations are one of rock’s best kept secrets.

Similar albums:
Sun Kil Moon – April
Centro-Matic – Fort Recovery
South San Gabriel – The Carlton Chronicles

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