The Denton, Texas-based quartet Centro-Matic have a rock and roll sound that is melodic, crunchy, and gleeful, but also a bit obtuse at times. It has the easy-to-handle accessibility that leads people to “classic rock” stations: the hooks, the power chords, the big raucous sound. But it also has an enigmatic quality, the space of interpretation built into the best poetry and art.
Though Centro-Matic are definitely a close-knit group (drummer Matt Pence even doubled as producer for all six of their albums), at the center of their music are the nicely crafted pop-rock songs of singer/guitarist/songwriter Will Johnson. He has a voice likely to conjure up other “indie-rock” figures at various times, especially those voices that at times seem whiney or one-dimensional but at other times prove themselves to be gorgeously expressive and surprisingly powerful (people like J. Mascis, Isaac Brock and Britt Daniel, especially, come to mind). Specific comparisons become irrelevant even partway through their latest album Distance and Clime. No matter what surface-level comparisons the ear makes at first, the songs soon rise up to take over.
All of Centro-Matic’s songs have a rock groove and melodic base, lending the album an aura of comfort and pleasure. To put it bluntly, Johnson knows how to write damn good songs, the sort of songs that just stick around whether you want them to or not. The dichotomy that lies within Distance and Clime comes from the fact that, while Centro-Matic’s music has the loose, spontaneous feel of the best rock, their lyrics have an almost scientific measurability to them. Though the lyrics are ambiguous as far as meaning is concerned, they are also very matter-of-fact; the words are laid in a way that seems unquestionably deliberate.
That sort of delicate planning is as much a lyrical theme of Distance and Clime as it is an apparent songwriting method. While Johnson’s lyrics are mysterious rock poetry, the major themes that keep arising in them involve creations of a more scientific nature. The systems and patterns involved in geography, mathematics, and chemistry aren’t usually central to rock lyrics, but here they are. Yet that doesn’t mean Centro-Matic’s lyrical perspective seems cold or distant. Instead, Johnson captures the mystery behind the plans, the question marks behind the equations.
The album’s title itself indicates that mapping is going on. Yet while Johnson’s lyrics often center on charts and figures, it isn’t always clear from them that planning can get you anywhere. Most of the mapping seems to lead to confusion and wandering. “The blueprints clearly state that our plan is irrational…All the pros have gathered here today to diagnose that we have lost our way”, Johnson sings on “Actuator’s Great”. Johnson seems obsessed with the ways we try to categorize and measure every aspect of life, but he isn’t necessarily celebrating them. More often that not, logical explanations go nowhere. Johnson seems to find a certain wonder and magic in straight lines and careful diagrams, but in his songs he also channels the heartwrenching emotions that run through rock history, the feeling that everyone’s lost or the sense that we haven’t realized the world’s potential.
Though the name Centro-Matic itself evokes something mechanical, something planned and regimented, the band’s songs brilliantly explode the myth that everything is easily solved. And all the while they use their words and sounds to discover the path into listeners’ hearts, to find that part of us that hears a rock and roll song and wants to both dance and cry.