Will Johnson, the main force behind Centro-matic, seems to be perpetually releasing something. A solo album, a record with one of his bands, or a supergroup recording seems to always be coming out. Throw in EPs, cassingles, and the like, and it’s hard to imagine where this all comes from. That there have been five years between proper Centro-matic albums (aside from a split with Johnson’s South San Gabriel) seems either unlikely or inevitable depending on how you look at it, but at any rate Candidate Waltz marks the latest work in Johnson’s career and it’s worth slowing down for.
Centro-matic has generally had an element of the alt-country to them, and while it’s not unimaginable to picture this band coming out of, say, Chapel Hill, the Denton, TX roots make sense (even if they’re not a death metal riot). While Johnson’s whiskey-and-cigarettes voice provides the group with some of its uniqueness, they’re not likely to be confused with the Strokes no matter indie-rock they get (or Archers of Loaf, to keep our geographical dichotomy intact).
On Candidate Waltz, though, the group fills out its sound more in that direction. Just a few seconds into the album, “Against the Line” sets itself up as a hooky, guitar-driven album, and that holds reasonably true, especially on tracks like “All The Talkers”, “Iso-Residue”, and “If They Talk You Down”. “Iso-Residue” particularly sounds at home in an NYC indie club (I knew the Strokes would come up again). If the album leans heavily on Johnson’s indie side, though, it doesn’t stay stuck there. “Solid States” provides a notable departure, riding on an almost New Wave groove, sounding as familiar as an ‘80s song you’ve heard on the radio for two decades, yet unique enough to remain distinct from any of those songs.
Lyrically, Johnson keeps his songs vague enough that he draws the listener into an atmosphere and a context without providing any clear explanation. At its best, it’s a net that holds you comfortably, but at times it’s easy to get lost in the imprecision. The lyrics could use some claws (which, to be fair, few nets have). “Iso-Residue” suffers from being too vague, but its catchy enough that it doesn’t matter. On “Estimate x 3” Johnson sings, “Gimme what you want / But don’t tell me”, and by the end of the song, the lines make perfect sense even if they’re nearly inexplicable. You can take a Keatsian view and leave it unparaphrased, but you can feel how it fits into the challenge (but not defeat) of a relationship described in the preceding moments.
One of the standout tracks, “All the Talkers” is much more straightforward. The song tells the story of a band that “were not like the ones before”. Johnson recounts an evening in a club, or maybe a bar – Centro-matic still seems more suited for a bar, but the setting seems more clublike – where a band shows up and plays over the rude talkers and indifferent audience over “cubicle jobbers”, “girlfriend steals”, and “cocaine winks”. It’s not easy for even a very good band to win over a crowd like this, but the band in the song succeeds with a triumphant immediacy.
Candidate Waltz is unlikely to have that sort of clear-cut victory, not because it isn’t a quality record, but because it requires a certain immersion in the lyrics, and it doesn’t reward that immersion every time. It is worthy of canceling your conversation and your partner pilfering for its short run-time, though, because there are plenty of rewards here. If Centro-matic is no longer as raw as the band in “All the Talkers”, they’ve turned experience to good use, and Johnson seems determined to play until you listen.