Former Mott the Hoople singer/songwriter Ian Hunter once released an album called You’re Never Alone with a Schizophrenic. It’s an aphorism that Will Johnson has taken to heart. Johnson is the leader of two bands, South San Gabriel and Centro-Matic. Although the bands are (mostly) comprised of the same members, they could not be more different. South San Gabriel plays sprawling, ruminative folk and alt-country; music dominated by acoustic guitars, cellos, and atmospheric pedal steel. Centro-Matic plays loud, distorted, lo-fi rock ‘n roll, a sort of Guided by Voices meets Modest Mouse mashup. And, just to keep things interesting, Johnson also occasionally records under his own name.
Confused? Let Misra Records help you sort it out. On June 3rd Misra will drop Dual Hawks, a double CD featuring 11 songs from South San Gabriel and 12 songs from Centro-Matic, the 14th and 15th albums Mr. Johnson has released during this prolific decade. It’s a somewhat questionable approach because the two albums, taken singly, are rather monochromatic affairs. What Johnson does he does well, and the South San Gabriel songs are appropriately atmospheric and lovely, and the Centro-Matic songs are appropriately bracing and ragged. But the two CDs, back to back, do point up the inherent problems with this approach. The South San Gabriel songs, always pretty, become somewhat soporific over the course of forty-five minutes, The Centro-Matic songs, always raw and visceral, start to blend together after a while. Shuffle Mode on your CD player may be the solution.
Johnson is, to put it mildly, a solipsistic songwriter, lost in his own mystical lyrical connections, so don’t come looking for straightforward narratives:
Strangled by the cellophane in the story of her life
She got theirs and they got mine
Eighteen tubes of butane running corporation fairs
It’s discount-like and out of time
That’s the way opening Centro-Matric track “Rat Patrols and DJs” starts out. Sure thing, dude. Number nine, number nine. But the obfuscation is presented in such a hook-filled, power-chord-buttressed way that it sounds just fine. He could be singing random words (and there is some evidence that he might be) and it would still sound great. On the other side of the schizophrenic schism, South San Gabriel opener “Emma Jane” is both much more lyrically focused and more musically sprawling; an impressionistic wash of acoustic guitar and cello that is simply begging for a hook.
It’s an impressive if frustrating approach, one that constantly highlights Johnson’s failures as well as his obvious gifts. His music deserves a wider audience, and this magnum opus just might be the logical place to start. But remember Shuffle Mode. It will help.