It’s your limitations that make you what you are.
This line from the Mendoza Line’s “Catch a Collapsing Star,” the second track from Full of Light and Full of Fire, marks one more time that the group has used the lowest common denominator to use as a comparison, the first being the baseball reference in their name. (For that story, read the review of Mendoza Line’s previous album, Fortune). What strikes me as odd, however, is that through these two comparisons, they are like the supermodel saying she’s too fat or too homely. Newly married singing couple Timothy Bracy and Shannon McArdle are artists who reach far beyond their `limitations’ and continue to make each album better than the last.
Bracy and McArdle are like the indie June and Johnny Cash, like a countrified Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, like an American backwoods Stars. The political and character sketches on Fortune were artistically drawn, making it one of the best albums of 2004, but the song stories on Full of Light and Full of Fire are so fully realized that they stand a head above the others. The album begins with the dire and depressing suicide story of a single mother in “Water Surrounds” as sung by McArdle, whose vocals can remind some of a mix of Jenny Lewis and Neko Case. The aforementioned “Catch a Collapsing Star” follows, but it is with “Golden Boy (Torture in the Shed)” that the album really takes off and acquires a life of its own. It is at that point that the rock breaks in, McArdle’s voice gains surety and footing, and an “I’ll kick in your door” quality. The song is about an unlikely subject, oppressed women in Saudi Arabia, but the vocal delivery, such as the overlapped Debbie Harry-like vocal speeds in the chorus, is so seductive you can almost miss its meaning.
“Rat’s Alley” is Bracy’s first rocking number where he channels Bob Dylan as if singing with the Replacements, which is odd considering they’re not from Minnesota. “Settle Down, Zelda” contains some of the best lyric writing on the album:
Oh she reels and she lurches
Through the borough of churches
Where a man dare not stand in her way
After all of the urges, some virtue emerges
But finally you still gotta pay.
The song is one of the best of the album, featuring wonderfully subtle guitar work, background keyboards and a biting wit. The politically charged “Pipe Stories” follows, being an indictment of President Bush and his specious reasoning for going to war.
“Mysterious in Black” is another standout song, sounding like a castoff from the Police’s Synchronicity sessions as sung by Emily Haines. Its delightfully staccato guitars alongside deep resonating bass and creepy keys accompany a noir storyline akin to either “Watching the Detectives” or “City of Motors.” McArdle’s “Lethal Temptress” continues the literary fun fest as she rhymes `sent this,’ ‘defenseless’ and ‘contemptuous’ to the title figure. This, like most of the other songs on the album have multiple personalities, as erudite and witty short stories, boozy honky-tonk bar singalongs and a musical mélange of style, substance and snarkiness. The album closes with the only song written by neither of the main contributors, the song from whence the album’s title is taken, “Our Love is Like a Wire.” Written from the point of view of an old married couple looking back on their lives, they say that their love was ‘full of light and full of fire.’ It’s enough to bring tears to the eyes, and nearly does, once again recalling the June and Johnny Cash comparison.
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 a career as the Cash’s. Their sparkling wit and dynamic approach to songwriting sets them in the higher echelons of the music world, despite the band’s name, or their claim that people are defined by their limitations. The truth is, it seems as if the Mendoza Line has no limitations. And while the result may not be effortless, it can at least seem that way to the listener, as each successive album from the Georgia group grows increasingly more agile, competent and enjoyable. Listening to the Mendoza Line is like watching an old cherished movie after a long interstice—you have forgotten just how good it is, marvel at its genius and put it away again only to repeat the process the next year. They may not get the attention that other bands get, but they deserve every bit of accolade.