Cyndi Lauper had it right (didn’t she always?) when she sang, “Money changes everything.” But the inverse is also true: everything changes money. The bills in your wallet have undergone considerable alterations in recent years, from rhinoplasty and hair implants to the controversial addition of non-green color. What haven’t changed are the intricate webs of spirals and whorls that compose the edging and borders. The design is banded across the artwork for the Mendoza Line’s new album, Fortune — front, back, and inside. Its omnipresent, trestle-like pattern holds the album aloft, much the same way a greenback is (to some) the most basic building block of a nation. Fortune is an album where money, politics, and all that important stuff intertwine in gutsy, three-minute blasts of country-rock.
Fortune is not, however, OK Computer, Jerusalem, or even American Idiot (all radically different, radical musical statements in their own, um, rad right). The greater themes of the work are embedded in the personal narratives rather than announced straightaway, or thinly disguised agitprop. Plus, the multiple writers and voices in the band keep the listening experience fresh and in constant flux. Seriously, I think a cover of “Pass The Mic” is long overdue, guys, and more than appropriate at this point. How about it?
For now, I’m more than ecstatic just to have these originals, starting with “Fellow Travelers”, which backs up lines like “Fellow travelers rushed the borders / You had your reasons you had your orders / From the mindless incrementalists” with barroom piano, casually off-key vocals, and a soul choir (Renee LoBue and the Sterling Heights Singers). Any message the lyrics offer is wisely kept in service of the overall song (notes/comments for each track are offered at the band’s website). The most direct indictment of the current state of the union is “Let’s Not Talk About It”, and even that could be interpreted as a relationship song if you really love living in denial. “You make everybody feel like a guest / In the intermission of your broadcast / Telling anecdotes and stories all the day / While outside the windows rattle and shake.” A song about disposable news media/pundits couldn’t be timelier, but it’s written timelessly — no puns about Faux News et cetera. Plus, it wouldn’t mean squat if it weren’t a good song, which it is.
Many of the musical highlights on Fortune come thanks to the pen and voice of Shannon Mary McCardle. Her voice has a twang similar to Lucinda Williams’s, but she brings her own character to the table in spades. If the band as a whole sounds like a fairly rowdy crew, I’d peg McCardle as the dangerous one. Even when she sings sweet she sounds sassy. Say that five times fast. “Faithful Brother (Scourge of the Land)” fairly kicks my ass in under two minutes. The chorus seems too wordy to be so catchy, and the lap steel embellishments topping off the Stones-y riffs sound perfect. “Flat Feet and Western Style” shifts between parts that are alternately chooglin’ and woozy with deceptive ease, and features what I’ll call the best couplet of the year: “Our sainted mother told you wrong / That old hag back in Seoul misread your palm.”
That blend of fun, straight-up country-rock-soul and literary viability makes Fortune ceaselessly enjoyable. When you want to close your eyes, rock out, and sing along, it’s there. When you want your music to be provocative and insightful without being pedantic, it’s still there! Yee-haw! There are even a few lovely weepers to close out the album. “Will You Be Here Tomorrow?” features a simple vocal melody and shuffling gait, but never sounds pedestrian due to the earnest performance of all involved. “Throw It in the Fire” sounds like Mazzy Star with a sense of humor and a few gulps of moonshine. Toward the end she sings, “Should’ve known that you were on to me / Ain’t got nothing you’d admire.” Uh-uh, sister. Nope. Fortune might even be the kind of art that accrues admiration, and if the Mendoza Line are as fortunate as they are worthy, some dollars as well.