When the Mendoza Line released Lost in Revelry in 2002, it was met with some of the most simultaneously faint and flattering praise ever doled out when the Village Voice called it “a small classic of no cultural import whatsoever—merely the most likable record of the year, a toothpick Blonde On Blonde held together with chewing gum.” That the Mendoza Line wholeheartedly embraced these words, even including them on the bio page of their website, should come as no surprise to those familiar with them. They are a band who will take whatever they can get, and you get the feeling that they half-suspect that they don’t deserve it anyway.
At least that’s the way that I’d always thought of them. But since talking with Mendoza Line singer/songwriter/lovely human being Shannon Mary McArdle, I’ve learned that the slack indifference and solipsistic tendencies that characterized the band’s early years are gone. They are grown up. They are responsible.
“If you are offering people something that you consider art, you have to feel somewhat responsible,” she told me over the phone from Brooklyn, where she was on a break from her day job of teaching English as a second language. “I think that if you have any kind of power—be it money, or fame, or whatever—I think that you have the responsibility to use that to do something.”
McArdle was a late addition to the Mendoza Line, joining the band in 1998. Since then she has gradually gained equal footing with founding singer/songwriters Timothy Bracy and Peter Hoffman. In a way, it’s easy to conclude that her influence has helped steer the band away from the apolitical, aconcerned-with-much-anything-outside-their-immediate-world ethos of its youth.
It’s more complicated than that, of course—factors like the inexorable approach of older age and an increasingly charged political climate obviously have a lot to do with it. But for reasons not verifiable by facts or evidence, I suspect that McArdle—who is exceedingly kind, confident, grounded, and really quite funny—has at least partly contributed to this shift, and never has it been more apparent than on their new album. Fortune contains by far the most politically oriented songs the band has written, the crown jewel of which is a sad and swampy anthem called “Fellow Travelers”, an America-weary account of disillusionment and national apostasy sung in the heartbreaking rasping tenor of Timothy Bracy, the man who six years ago invited McArdle into the band.
“We were all going to the University of Georgia in Athens,” she recounted, “Or at least I was going to UGA. It’s not clear what any of the others were doing in Athens, but they were there. So I met Tim and Paul [Deppler, the band’s bassist and resident composer of oblique liner notes], and they invited me to come to the studio. I started by singing some backing vocals, and then I guess I was just in the band.”
“Tim had given me a guitar before he moved to New York,” she continued, “it was an old acoustic that he had, and I didn’t know how to play. But he just said to me, ‘Write a song.’ So I got my twin brother to teach me five chords, and I wrote my first song that night. I didn’t really have a lot of the obstacles that a lot of people have, because no one said to me ‘Why are you writing? You don’t know how to play anything.’”
McArdle’s confidence—powerful in its unreasonableness—helps imbue Fortune with unlikely poise. Whereas in the past the band had avoided politics because (you got the feeling) they felt that they had nothing new or especially relevant to say, now they don’t care whether it’s new or relevant or not.
It seems like everyone wants to read a subtext of inter-band turmoil—of hostile competition and barely concealed jealousy—into the Mendoza Line. They assume that there must be a Yoko effect regarding McArdle’s initiation into the band since she’s Bracy’s girlfriend, and before her arrival, Bracy and Hoffman, friends since childhood, had shared all of the songwriting duties. Now those duties are split equally between McArdle, Hoffman, and Bracy.
“I know that Tim was really excited about the prospect of me writing a third of the songs,” she said. “I never really spoke to Pete about it. It just sort of happened, and he has been really supportive, you know, unless we’re fighting about something. I can remember one fight we had a couple of years ago, and Pete said, ‘You sang on one of the songs and all of the sudden you’re on all of the albums!’ But they’ve all been really supportive, and have never discouraged me.”
If anything threatened the band’s togetherness during the recording of Fortune, it wasn’t jealousy or competition, but a passionate desire to capitalize on the strong critical reception of Lost in Revelry. There were disagreements among the band members on how best to accomplish that, and for McArdle at least, it made for a grueling studio experience.
“I was feeling a bit less like compromising. It wasn’t like ‘I really hate this,’ or ‘I hate what this person is doing,’ but I just felt less like compromising and more frustrated as a result. It comes down to feeling more pressure on this album.”
“In the past,” she continued, “we had always been a band where whoever wanted to play on the record could play. If your cousin was in town and he knew how to play an instrument, then he could come play on the record. On this one, I guess the stakes were a little higher, and everyone said, ‘I do this, I do this, this is my instrument, this is my part,’ so it was more difficult and more expensive because not everybody lives in the same place, and it wasn’t easy to get everybody in the studio to record their parts. I found that a little frustrating because the album could have been done more quickly and more cheaply.”
“But I’m guilty of it too,” she confessed. “Like, if I want to be the woman who sings on something, and then they invite someone else to sing a backing vocal I might go, ‘Well what’s wrong with me?’ I think everybody does that to some extent. We were a little bit territorial, because there’s more to gain. At least we’re hoping there is.”
Oddly, one of Fortune’s most rewarding songs is a hidden track written and sung by the least assertive member of the band, bassist Paul Deppler. It’s just a little love song, and it sounds like it could have been lifted from McCartney’s first solo album—a beguiling piece of whimsical poetry sung in the voice of a man who’s not quite sure he wants to be heard.
“Paul is a great songwriter,” McArdle said enthusiastically. “He’s just a little shy about it. He’s a great singer, too—a really good harmony singer. I’m always begging him to sing harmonies with me. He’s just very secretive, very humble. That’s just his personality. We’d like him to come out a bit more.”
But there’s too much talent in this band for a shy guy to shine—so much talent that their thus-far-only-modest-success seems a bit of a crime. But while their fanbase lacks big numbers, it does include some big names, specifically venerated rock critic Greil Marcus.
Marcus has been regularly lauding the band in Salon (among other publications) for two years now, and he has taken a particular shine to McArdle’s twangy, untrained voice. To read his commentary, one might even conclude that Mr. Marcus has a touch of a schoolboy crush. When I suggested this to McArdle, she responded first with blushing laughter, and then said, “I flatter myself to think so. I don’t know exactly—but I think maybe I have a little crush on him too.”
So how in the world did Marcus come across the Mendoza Line? Do they know him somehow?
“No, we don’t know him. It’s a complete mystery. But I think he’s a big fan of the Mekons, and it’s possible that he heard a lot of people associating us with them, or saying we sound like them, and maybe that intrigued him, I’m not really sure. We’re just so flattered that he’s taken such an interest.”
If nothing else, Marcus’s praise is proof that the aging critic still has some discernment left in his ears. He knows what the rest of the music-loving population deserves to know, and that’s that the Mendoza Line matter in the rock and roll universe.