The Mendoza Line: 30 Year Low & Final Remarks of the Legendary Malcontent
The Mendoza Line's final album, couple with a disc of odds 'n' sods, is a solid note to end on, though not their highest.
When we last heard from the Mendoza Line, it was 2005 and the band had released its best record to date, Full of Light and Full of Fire. Since then, unfortunately, things haven't gone so smoothly. Bandmates and married couple Tim Bracy and Shannon McArdle have divorced, and McArdle won't continue on as a member of the Mendoza Line. What they've left fans with is one final mini-LP, 30 Year Low coupled with a rarities collection entitled Final Remarks of the Legendary Malcontent.
Quite obviously, 30 Year Low deals with the disillusionment of Bracy and McArdle's marriage over eight songs. Fans of the band won't find much deviation from what they've done in the past, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Over nine previous releases, the band honed their alt-country touched guitar pop into something tight and brilliant. Sharing songwriting and lead vocal duties, the couple always seem to be forcing each other to elevate their performances, and with 30 Year Low, nothing has changed on that front. McArdle handles the first three songs, and runs the gamut of emotions on them. Opener "Since I Came" is fragile and hurt and beautiful. It rivals Light and Fire's "Water Surrounds" as perhaps the best song she's ever written. It's a far more typical lover's lament track than you're likely to find in the rest of this album. McArdle's duet with Okkervil River's Will Sheff, "Aspect of an Old Maid", is another strong tune that, following "Since I Came", sounds fresh-wound raw, but ends up being nothing in that department compared to the song that follows it, "31 Candles". Here, McArdle quick-fires lyrics that have more piss 'n vinegar in them than any Mendoza Line song to date (At one point she sings, "She follows all your work, got a fucking kitty on her shirt." And, later in the song, "Put a shrine around your dick.").
Bracy's songs are equally all over the place emotionally, from the almost tongue-in-cheek "I Lost My Taste" to the half-sneering country twang of "Thirty Year Low". It's hard to talk about a divorce album without mentioning Blood on the Tracks, but it seems appropriate here since the Mendoza Line took some clear notes from Dylan. These songs are verbose and overstuffed the way Dylan's were, and in a similar way to Tracks, these songs are sort of sticky to figure out. Aside from "Since I Came", not much else on the record is upfront with its emotions. More often than not, the emotions are packed behind clever lyrics and snide joking, which makes the record sound guarded and defensive in a very interesting way. To make this sort of album is a risk for the Mendoza Line, without a doubt, and it mostly pays dividends, though Bracy and McArdle may dip into the defensive posturing well a few too many times. In the end, 30 Year Low might not match up to its predecessor, but it is surely a compelling album by a band both at its creative peak and its unfortunate end.
The second disc, Final Reflections of the Legendary Malcontent is really a fans-only disc. It’s an odds and sods collection of unreleased material, demos, live tracks, and covers. And while none of the songs are bad (excusing the unnecessary cover of Cole Porter's "Anything Goes") it is a disc that really only stand on a fan's sense of nostalgia. The McArdle-lead cover of Springsteen's "Tougher Than the Rest" is probably the biggest highlight, though some of Bracy's offerings, particularly the demo of "Now or Never or Later" are more brooding ballads than the stuff on 30 Year Low and offer a nice juxtaposition. Perhaps to strengthen the Blood on the Tracks comparison, the band included a cover of Dylan's "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry" that, while not on Tracks, seems appropriate for the occasion, and their delivery is one of solid homage that makes up for its straightforwardness with plenty of energy.
It's sad to see a band like the Mendoza Line, or at least the work between Bracy and McArdle, go when it seems they were just hitting their stride. But at least they left an album worthy enough to send them off on the right foot, and enough extras to let their fans know they're appreciated.