ou know what the Mendoza Line means, right?” A friend of mine confronted me with this question when I mentioned I would be reviewing the band’s recent performance at the Mercury Lounge. I hate when people ask me questions that begin with “You know” and end with “right?” It gives me a sudden flash of a middle school-style inferiority complex, as I rack my brain for an answer while trying not to sound too phased. I mentally rattled off etymological possibilities—was the Mendoza Line some geographical line of demarcation in Argentina? Not quite, explained my know-it-all friend; it’s actually a baseball term that refers to batting averages that hover around .200, a sort of standard of athletic mediocrity. The band that adopted this moniker, however, clearly demonstrated that they have well surpassed the line that divides the mediocre and the sublime.
The band’s origins lie not below the Mendoza Line, but the Mason-Dixon. They formed in Athens, Georgia and retained a southern musical accent after their move to Brooklyn. With a population of seven, the Mendoza Line are bigger than your average indie rock band, and the wealth of instrumentation makes their sound all the richer. Their incorporation of pedal steel guitar blends seamlessly into the songs, and doesn’t corner them into sounding like a hoedown novelty act. Though the band’s sound is rooted in a rootsy Americana (not a rare genre in Brooklyn these days), their combination of sweet melodies and frequent use of fuzzy distortion hints at the number of Yo La Tengo records they’ve got stockpiled beneath their beds.
The night’s performance was not without some subtle dramas. Upon taking the stage the band discovered that the keyboard had suddenly been possessed by a poltergeist, causing it to be stuck on pipe organ mode. I also couldn’t help but notice that co-lead singer Shannon Mary McArdle kept flashing almost-irritated, almost-embarrassed looks at guitarist/keyboardist Tim Bracy, who seemed clumsily hyper and ever-so-slightly intoxicated. Of course, everyone knows that liquor belongs in country music, and the giddily drunken overtone to Mendoza Line songs is half their charm. It’s the attitude I’ve always loved about country-western: we may be miserable, but at least we’re miserable at the bar.
The band culled most of their set list from their remarkably fine full-length album, Lost in Revelry, released in 2001 on Misra Records. A highlight of the show was the performance of “A Damn Good Disguise”, an upbeat, classic clap-along that opens up that record. It’s a song that shows off Bracy’s gravelly Dylanesque vocals, and counters them with McArdle’s sweet harmonies. Mendoza lyrics tend to follow two paths: the bitter “you done me wrong” sort, and the “I’m so lonesome I could cry” sort, as on “The Way of the Weak”, which Shannon McArdle sang halfway through the set. In this case the loneliness is not just a melancholy about having no one to love, it’s the sense of alienation particular to urban living—the condition of being trampled on that most New Yorkers live with every day.
Often they sing of sadness in a deceptively sunny way, as with “Whatever Happened to You”, which they performed at the beginning of their set. Like many of their songs, it focuses on the surreal oddity of the breakup, the shock of sudden solitude that follows an intense intimacy: “Whatever happened to you, baby? / You once were the guide that helped to save me…Now all you are is a line in a song to me.” Obviously, lost love isn’t exactly unexplored lyrical territory, but it just so happens that the Mendoza Line are particularly adept at retelling the tale.
Despite their melancholic leanings, the band was totally lighthearted in performance, and the Liners spent a good deal of time glancing at each other with knowing smiles. Their enthusiasm is a happy departure from the typically sullen faces we see on stages in New York.