I should probably own up to something up front -- The Mendoza Line have been a bit of a pet band for me for practically their entire career. I was first introduced to the then-Athens, Georgia-based (now predominantly Brooklyn-based) band back in my college radio days, when I was taken in by their utterly charming, if slightly derivative debut, Poems to a Pawnshop. With "I Know I Will Not Find the Words", which can be found on their sophomore release, 1998's Like Someone in Love EP, they managed to pen one of my top 10 favorite songs ever -- right up there with The Cure's "Just Like Heaven" and Superchunk's "Untied". I've followed them semi-religiously ever since, and have yet to be disappointed by anything they've done. This winning streak continues with Lost in Revelry, which very will might be their best record yet.
For their first few releases, the band was comprised mainly of singer/songwriters Timothy Bracy and Peter Hoffman. Even as early as their first record, both men exhibited a knack for taking the minutiae of daily life and (especially) relationships and turning them into shambolic pop gems. Although they've mellowed out considerably since the Superchunk-meets-Pavement-on-the-front porch-in-Athens indie rock racket of Poems to a Pawnshop, their writing has done nothing but get more incisive over the years. With each new album, the band seems to write songs that cut deeper and touch more personal nerves than ever before.
While the Line have always been obsessed with the battle of the sexes, their portrayal of said struggle became just that much more realistic with the addition of third singer/songwriter Shannon McArdle, whose writing mirrors Bracy and Hoffman's terminal disenchantment, except from a female point of view. Her debut came on 2000's We're All in This Alone, which found her splitting writing chores evenly with Bracy and Hoffman. For a relative newcomer, her songs fit in seamlessly with Bracy and Hoffman's, with practically no drop in quality. Lost in Revelry actually finds McArdle contributing slightly more than a third of the songs -- she's got five to her credit, whereas the Bracy/Hoffman team claims the remaining eight.
Although their latest is cheerily, cheekily titled Lost in Revelry, the title for their previous record would be much more appropriate in describing the songs contained herein. In fact, the song "We're All in This Alone" appears on this album, not the one it's named after. That song is quite emblematic of the disappointment and bleakness inherent in many a Mendoza Line song: "Everybody thinks that we're in this together / Everybody wishes we'll always be together / But we're all in this alone." Although the band has always dealt in romantic disappointment and despair, Lost in Revelry sees the band plumbing new depths of misery and disillusionment. These downcast lyrics are, naturally, paired with some of the most hummable, charming pop of their career. Lines like "You've outlived your uselessness", "I do not wish this misery upon you / . . . Though it is my fear, darling, that it will choose you", and "Why is there pain, so much pain / Over and over again" might escape notice at first, but they're there, the depressive underbelly of this buoyant pop music.
Musically, Lost in Revelry runs the gamut from gauzy, atmospheric ballads ("I'm That!", "The Way of the Weak") to brisk, fuzzed-out rockers ("In Your Hands", "Mistakes Were Made"), to the most amazing collision of the Psychedelic Furs and the Replacements you've ever heard ("Under Radar"). Needless to say, it's a pretty intriguing trip. Perhaps the most revelatory moment comes with "Whatever Happened to You", an absurdly catchy pop song sung by Hoffman, with the devastating chorus "Whatever happened to you, baby / You once were the light that helped to show me / When I was right and when I was wrong / And now all you are is a line in a song to me." Elsewhere in the song, Hoffman reels off some amazingly evocative couplets -- "You are like a con, locked away for doing no wrong / The system is your foe, but you're alibi's see through . . . You are like the wind, howling through deserted glens / Your power is intense, but your audience has left."
Other high points include McArdle's heartbreaking "Red Metal Doors", which starts out with "You bring me laughter 'til my sides are splitting / And my smile emitting the fortune and shame to be so in love with you", and ends with "Now there's not an end to these things that bend me / The time you denied you left me to see her . . . I walked in and I saw her there waiting / I got on my knees and prayed I was mistaken . . . God please come and end me." In typical Mendoza Line fashion, McArdle's most heartbreaking words are mumbled under her breath and tucked away at the end of the song, as if to say "aw, it's not that important, just a broken heart". The aforementioned "Under Radar" sees the Line departing slightly from their usual conceits of bashed-out, fuzzy pop and/or sleepy, front-porch ballads by drenching the mix in reverb, and striking out in an entirely different and entirely pleasing direction. One could consider "(We'll Never Make) The Final Reel", a cut from their '99 release I Like You When You're Not Around, which they dubbed their "new wave" song, as a precursor to this sound. However, "Under Radar" takes the progress made in "Final Reel" and runs with it, primarily doing away with the Line's typical clever wordplay in favor of a much simpler, more direct lyric, filled with hope for days ahead rather than their usual intense cynicism. "The starting engine relieves the tension she has always kept inside / No destination or consternation, she only wonders what she'll find / There's nothing left to fear cause the whole world's right in front of her / And distance is the only cure / For forgetting who she was before", sings Hoffman. He delivers these lines with atypical conviction that belies his and Bracy's (especially Bracy's) usual marble-mouthed delivery, as echoey guitars and buzzing synths swirl around him. Of course, there's still the need for the character in question to forget "who she was before", but at least she's given that option rather than merely blindly repeating mistakes over and over ad nauseam, which is where the characters in most Mendoza Line songs usually end up.
Although The Mendoza Line haven't exactly reinvented the wheel with Lost in Revelry, it's still a fantastic album that deserves to be heard by anyone who appreciates supremely intelligent, morose pop music. While this release doesn't show the band making any grand alterations to their sound (which is a good thing, really), it does reveal a steady improvement in the band's collective songwriting skills, which were pretty damn good to begin with. More importantly, it shows that these guys (and girl) have quite a bit more life in them, and if "Under Radar" is any clue, many more good ideas which deserve to be explored to their fullest extent.