[18 June 2008]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
It’s a bit of an understatement to say that Will Johnson keeps himself busy. He’s been fronting Centro-matic and South San Gabriel for years now, churning out album after album for both projects. As if that weren’t enough, he’s made a solo record; toured as part of the Undertow Orchestra with Mark Eitzel, David Bazan, and Vic Chesnutt; and played as part of the reclusive Jandek’s backing band. And those are just the highlights, with smaller projects and releases scattered around them. He always seems to have something coming, so it was only a matter of time until he had two things coming at once.
Dual Hawks is the sort of release Johnson’s fans have been awaiting for a long time. The two-disc affair offers a full album from each of the singer’s two main projects, Centro-matic and South San Gabriel. And, perhaps as a consequence of being released together, the sounds of the two bands seem to have rubbed off on each other, giving us two albums that stand on their own, but work well together, and make an argument for Will Johnson as one of the most consistent and great songwriters working today.
Centro-matic have always been in the forefront as the number one Will Johnson band. South San Gabriel aren’t necessarily branded a side project, but they’ve never gotten the recognition that Johnson’s first band got, and there are obvious reasons for that. The Centro-matic sound has always been a quick punch of Americana. The songs pop and burst under Johnson’s gravelly voice, making a churning dust swirl of roots rock. South San Gabriel are that band’s murky, brooding sibling. Their songs trudge along forlornly, creating a miasmic loneliness that serves Johnson’s voice when he pulls it out reed thin. But where Centro-matic have always been more immediate, South San Gabriel have always sounded more lasting on their albums. Here, though, the Centro-matic side takes a page out of the South San Gabriel book and injects a little more atmosphere into their songs, beefing them up into a bunch of hard to forget rock songs.
“Two Seats Gold Reserved” is the best example of the heavier foundation in these Centro-matic songs. It is as driving a rock song as they have, but they slow the tempo just a bit, enough to let Johnson stretch his crumpled voice out to a high lonesome keen. The infectious melody doesn’t hit you immediately, but seeps into you as you listen, embedding itself so deeply into the song that, while it might not get you humming immediately, it will stay with you long after the last chord is strummed. Songs like “Remind Us Alive” and “I, the Kite” are similarly strong, giving the band’s rock solid sound a little room to stretch and grow. Their side of Dual Hawks is mostly a great step forward for the band. With the exception of the overcrowded floor-stomper “Strychnine, Breathless Ways”, this album—along with their last, Fort Recovery—show Johnson’s first band settling into its skin, absorbing elements of his other projects, and making the best music of its career.
South San Gabriel’s disc fares just as well. It opens with the incredibly slow, drawn-out ballad “Emma Jane”, a song that—in a lesser singer’s hands—would be plodding and flat. But Johnson’s heartbroken vocals and careful acoustic strums work perfectly together. “When the Angels Will Put Out Their Lights” has an aching, late-night highway echo to it, taking the space from some of those Centro-matic songs to a fantastic extreme. “Trust to Lose” takes some cues from Centro-matic’s rock sound, laying a heavy, crunchy bass line under a string-heavy composition, giving the band’s darkness a little more heft. “Senselessly” is a stripped down acoustic number, but in its dropped tuning and Johnson’s side-of-his-mouth singing, it manages to capture all the expansive quiet of the South San Gabriel sound with spartan tools, and with the most beautiful melody on the album.
Like the Centro-matic side, it isn’t all perfect. “Of Evil/For Evil” apes the Jaws theme and comes across as a bit melodramatic. And the drum machine cold of “The Arc and the Cusp” stretches itself a little thin. But overall, it is a shining example of Johnson’s songwriting talents. Dual Hawks could easily have become self-indulgent and bloated, a chance for Johnson’s normally tight compositions to come unraveled or mixed up between his two projects. Instead, the two bands hold each other up here, and—for all its size—this album doesn’t give us a watered down Will Johnson. Instead, we get the opposite. Dual Hawks is Will Johnson as his most concentrated.