“And you may tell yourself / This is not my beautiful house / And you may tell yourself / This is not my beautiful wife”
“I now can’t stand to bear the thought of this talented band not making music together.”
“One of my greatest hopes is that the Mendoza line, or at least Bracy and McArdle in some incarnation, will have as long and fruitful career as the Cash’s.”
Most of you, being the music fans that you are in peeping this site, will recognize the opening quotation. Although the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” wasn’t necessarily about divorce, it may as well have been. The following two quotations are taken from my own reviews of the Mendoza Line’s previous releases, Fortune and Full of Light and Full of Fire. Maybe it was just too good to be true. Here we had a group of singer / songwriters from Athens, Georgia who championed a blend of country and punk much like the Mekons, yet who also proved a love of baseball with a clever name. In other words, the Mendoza Line seemed to be a band tailor-made to my particular tastes. But alas, as I know from my own life experiences, marriages don’t always last. Principal members Timothy Bracy and Shannon McArdle married in 2005, the same year as the release of Full of Light and Full of Fire. Just a few short years later, that marriage fell apart, and thus, so did this incarnation of the band. 30 Year Low and its accompanying disc of rarities and covers are the final words from the Mendoza Line, a collection of songs not so much full of light and fire as they are full of vitriol and sadness.
As I look at the quotations from my previous reviews, I have to wonder, is all of this my fault? Did I put too much pressure on this band? The answer is probably not, as I’m not even sure they’ve even read them. Perhaps somewhat prophetically, the Mendoza Line named the first album featuring McArdle, We’re All In This Alone. And now, seven years later, that prophecy is fulfilled. Divorce is a terrible and painful experience, but thankfully, over the years, that dissolution of the institution of marriage has made for some of the finest songwriting of this or any other generation. Before, I made comparison of Bracy McArdle to the Cash’s, the Rosebuds and Bob Dylan with Joan Baez. It turns out that I should have been comparing them to Nicks and Buckingham or Richard and Linda Thompson, and a completely different era of Dylan’s career. Bracy has always made his voice emulate that of Dylan, and now it appears he has his own Blood on the Tracks. Yet, instead of never hearing the side of Sara, Dylan’s ex-wife, with 30 Year Low, we not only get McArdle’s side of the story, we are very nearly overwhelmed by it.
All of my love for the Mendoza Line came rushing back with the opening track, “Since I Came,” a melancholy song told from the point of view of an immigrant laborer. McArdle’s voice in this woozy and deliberate number finds her alongside such heavyweights as Neko Case and Emmylou Harris. In other words: powerful, emotional and brilliant. As “Aspect of an Old Maid” began, I found myself wondering how much Timothy Bracy’s voice had changed when I realized that the singer in question was Okkervil River’s Will Sheff. After reveling in The Stage Names for the past few weeks, a little more Sheff was more than welcome. His duet with McArdle is electrifying. “31 Candles” is the second track written by McArdle and redefines the word scathing. How Bracy could have contributed music to this song, I’ll never know, just as some could never figure out how Stevie Nicks was able to sing backup vocals on a song that demeans her directly. Upon further listens, however, you can hear just how much intensity is in the guitars as is in the vocals. Bracy finally makes his vocal debut in “I Lost My Taste,” the first song on the album that most definitely calls to mind snippets from Blood on the Tracks.
Although the pair’s relationship had changed, it’s apparent that their gift for lyrics hasn’t changed with it. The words that Bracy and McArdle use on their palate to paint their pictures of a love gone bad are as clever as always. “Love on Parole,” for instance, features the lyric, “that was no one’s wedding, baby, that was Pickett’s Charge,” comparing nuptials to the defining last and futile effort of the South in the Civil War. The twangy title track sums up all of the feelings of despair at the turning of a third decade in life, using business references to mask the hurt of a broken relationship. McArdle sings the final track, another one written by Bracy, which makes for six of the eight songs to feature her vocals as opposed to the three with Bracy. Could this be some clue as to the reasons for the split? Or could Bracy just not bear to vocalize most of his feelings? I don’t know that we’ll ever find out. We’ll just have to be content that we even have this musical document of pain to begin with.
This `mini-album’ only consists of eight songs. The Mendoza Line make up for that shortage with an entire other disc of rarities and covers called Final Reflections of the Legendary Malcontent. The sad times just keep on coming with the opening track looking at a world gone mad in Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes.” Throw in Linda Thompson’s “Withered and Died,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Tougher than the Rest” and perhaps most appropriately, Bob Dylan’s “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” then you have a virtual divorce compilation. Though this series of live tracks, b-sides and such make the album somewhat a Mendoza Line fan’s paradise, if not a sad final farewell, it’s the 30 Year Low disc that is the real treat. It may seem somewhat insensitive of me to revel in music that comes from such a sad place, but when the listener is in the same sad place, and that music comes from one of my favorite bands, it’s hard not to find solace. Great art has always seemingly come from tremendous pain. Same as it ever was.
Richard & Linda Thompson- I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight
Bob Dylan- Blood on the Tracks
Rilo Kiley- The Execution of All Things