Where do I even begin? That has been the ultimate dilemma fogging my noggin’ for the past few hours. There are so many things to cover! First of all, let’s just look at the band’s name. Any band who names themselves after the ‘imaginary’ line which represents batting .200 is okay with me. That’s right, the real ‘Mendoza Line’ is named after Seattle Mariner Mario Mendoza because during his season with the most plate appearances, he could not hit over .200. Now, every hitter who hits under .200 is ranked below the Mendoza Line. I’m a huge baseball fan and can appreciate the somewhat obscure reference.
Secondly, there’s the fact that their website and press sheet explain the album’s songs in a way lyrics sometimes fall short. It explains the political impetus of the album, how the 2000 election left them in a fugue, how foreigners see America as a country in trouble, how people see protests as anti-patriotism, and much more about love, romance, and corruption in this land of the free. The liner notes even contain a short story which name drops not only the editorial board of Magnet and Spin, but also Halliburton and Rhett Miller!
Thirdly, (although it really should be firstly), is the music of the band itself. Fortune is simply put, the best and most exciting album I’ve heard so far this year. The first time listening through I was mesmerized, the second time giddy, and the third blown away. Somehow, the Mendoza Line manages to take a handful of influences and sculpt creative and original material out of them. At times you swear you hear the Stones’ backup singers from Let it Bleed as in the song, “Fellow Travelers,” except instead of “It’s just a shot away” we hear “wash it away” and “I can’t afford you anyway.” This, of course, backs up the amalgamation of Bob Dylan and Jeff Tweedy that the lead singer comprises.
At other times you would swear that either Tanya Donelly, or perhaps more accurately Liz Phair, became countrified to become Shannon Mary McArdle, the female vocalist of the band. Could Fortune be the middle ground between Exile on Main Street and Exile in Guyville? The short answer is yes, while the long answer is that it is much more than that. Fortune delves into the ugly side of America, the kind of America that makes travelers swear they are Canadian to avoid trouble, the kind of America that destroys everything around it due to excess:
I want a big car with a kicking stereo – one that can go anywhere I wanna go.
Wholesale notoriety, barcode your anxiety
And for every line you’re willing to digest, I toss and turn and count every breath.
Here’s what it takes to make a woman. Here’s what it takes to make a wife. Take your little shoes off when you enter. May as well keep your shoes off all your life.
Your neighbors don’t like watching what they cannot see from inside. They say they’re only peeking, but Jesus Christ, they never bat an eye.
The Mendoza Line is comprised of some very intelligent people. What other band would use the words ‘denouement’ or ‘circumspect’ in their lyrics? There are some albums out there that just bear to stand comparison with other bands and albums, but Fortune is a little different. Instead of just composing musical pieces that resemble something else, they take the best of every mentor and predecessor. In other words, the Mendoza line is a musical Frankenstein’s Monster of sorts. Take Beulah’s pop sensibility, Wilco’s alt-country smarts, Dylan’s wordplay and nasal delivery, the Stones’ gritty blues and country mash-up, Liz Phair’s feminine but tough vocal demeanor, and the political bent of a Radiohead record, and you come somewhere close.
Consider the band’s previous releases to be warning shots, cannon fire across the bow to prepare for this, the sinking blow, the final felling stab, the pinnacle of their creative lives so far. I say so far because I now can’t stand to bear the thought of this talented band not making music together. Fortune is sure to make my end of year lists as it should yours, but you have to pick it up first. Unlike poor old Mario, the band named after his infamous sub par performance is batting 1.000. And although they might still raise a few ‘who?’s after a namedrop, soon that name will be on everyone’s lips and wonder how they got so popular so fast. Either that or they’ll go woefully unnoticed until twenty years down the line, a music writer ‘rediscovers’ Fortune and the album becomes a lost classic, unappreciated in its time, yet highly influential. It’s hard to say at this point.