Centro-Matic / South San Gabriel: Dual Hawks

This two-disc release from Will Johnson's two main projects, for all its size, never sounds as bloated or watered-down as it should.

Centro-Matic / South San Gabriel

Dual Hawks

Label: Misra
US Release Date: 2008-06-03
UK Release Date: 2008-04-14

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.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.