If you’ve been a fan of Will Johnson’s songwriting Fort Recovery is a record you’ve been waiting for. While all of Johnson’s various musical projects tend to teeter on the verge of great things, I’ve been wondering lately if he isn’t suffering by spreading his talents too thin. To wit: his supposedly more pop/Americana side project South San Gabriel has released two sterling albums gone unjustly unnoticed; Centro-matic, the ostensibly rock project, has just turned ten years old, while this past summer he released his third solo record of maudlin, somber, introspective songs. The divides between these projects are apparent when you speak with Johnson. It’s as if his highly prolific songwriting mind segregates what it produces, certain sounds and tones belong with certain projects and never shall they meet. For someone with over 200 song credits this may be a necessary tactic in order to accommodate the sheer volume that pours out of him. But I’ve never been quite able to shake the feeling that if Johnson would just let those projects flow together a bit the result would be startling. Well, Fort Recovery is that album. It is an album blending the introspection of Johnson’s solo work with the skewed pop leanings of South San Gabriel while never abandoning the unhinged rock of earlier Centro-matic.
Dont worry Fort Recovery is still much a Centro-matic album. The songs are bass heavy fuzz laden slices of rock anchored by Johnson’s mush mouthed delivery and near indecipherable lyrics. As is the norm with Centro-matic there are a number of powerful feel-it-in-the-gut rock tunes on Fort Recovery. “Calling Thermatic” sounds as if Johnson and company placed their microphones in the path of an incoming thunderhead and used the sound for a guitar riff. It is in every way a classic Centro-matic song: bass heavy distorted guitar riff, Johnson’s torn vocal chords struggling against the wave of sound, a catchy chorus that gathers itself and then soars away. “Patience for the Ride” and “Monument Sails” follow the Centro-matic formula closely as well. These songs are simply extensions of Centro-matic’s proven formula. To call them pedestrian would do the songs a great disservice, they are simply expected and received like old friends.
The real revelations on Fort Recovery lie in the ballads and the mid-tempo songs. Johnson has always shown that he can write quiet powerful songs for his solo records and gauzy mid-tempo pop for South San Gabriel. But for the first time we’re hearing it all in one place under the Centro-matic moniker. “I See Through You” and “In Such Crooked Times” are both gentle songs full of keyboard, violin and acoustic guitar, touched with electronic swirls and found noise. As the third and fourth songs on a twelve song album you wouldn’t normally be drawn to them, but because of the way they counterpoint the louder rock songs I would argue that they are the aesthetic heart of . “I See Through You”‘s introspection gives way to “In Such Crooked Times”‘s mid-tempo shuffle, chiming guitar riff, and Johnson’s deliciously subtle “ba-ba-ba-ba” chorus, in the same manner that an old couple tends to finish one another’s sentences. One ends and the other begins without a pause in the musical conversation. It is a seamless transition that doesn’t dampen the power of the rock numbers, but reminds you of the power they contain. If there were issues with Centro-matic’s early albums those issues revolved around the tendency for the band to get mired in the sameness of their songs. On Fort Recovery Johnson employs a variety of styles and instrumentation that remain unified by the common props of Johnson’s voice and the band’s ability to maintain the album’s tone no matter what type of song they are working on. What I mean is that whether Centro-matic is in rock attack mode or the more nuanced moments of ballad they are always recognizable. When Fort Recovery is on the stereo you won’t mistake it for another band and you won’t mistake it for another Centro-matic album.
Songs like “The Fugitives Have Won”, “Triggers and Trash Heaps” and “Nothin’ I Ever Seen” mark Johnson as one of the few legitimate heirs to Paul Westerberg’s best songwriting moments. They all rely less on blowing your ears off and more on the nuances of putting together clever phrases with sparkling, often subtle sometimes overblown, musical movements. Whether Johnson’s sending up or celebrating the excess of hair band power ballads when “Nothin’ I Ever Seen” throws itself whole heartedly into a soaring classic rock guitar solo seems secondary to the fact that you can’t help but love what you’re hearing. It simply works in Centro-matic’s hands no matter how unexpected it is.
Simply put Fort Recovery is Centro-matic’s high water mark. Few bands, particularly indie rock bands, are still together after ten years much less able to release their strongest album to date. I wouldn’t dare say that Fort Recovery marks the end of Will Johnson’s tendency to dilute his songwriting talents among too many projects (I love the sound of South San Gabriel too much anyway) but the strength of Fort Recovery lies in the fact that it isn’t restricted to a particular sound or artificially construed aesthetic. It feels as if Johnson took his best songs to his band mates and decided to make a great record not just a great Centro-matic record.