Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Fairly obscure band CD review
"Fortune" by The Mendoza Line
Alright, it’s true. I admit I’m slightly biased. Since stumbling upon a used CD of theirs in Austin, Texas during Spring Break of 2002, then promptly missing them perform live the next night at the South by Southwest Festival, to see ‘Citizen Toxie,’ if memory serves, I have openly been in love with this band. After two full years of almost comical misses, I was finally able to catch them live this summer in Hoboken as they struggled to get their latest CD distributed stateside. After months of negotiating this and that and signing whatever dotted lines people are forced to sign for those sorts of things, their new album is finally here (for those who didn’t buy it early at a greatly reduced price from the lovely Shannon McArdle after one of their gigs). And sweet God, it is so deliciously good.
Just quick history first. The Line formed back in 1996 in McLean, Virginia then promptly moved to Athens, Georgia to fester in the bourgeoning music scene there. After a few missteps with notorious alternative labels, they relocated to Brooklyn and have stayed blissfully under the radar while composing some of the most heartbreakingly gorgeous bad time music; usually highlighting the invariable low points in life - the break ups and break downs, drunk cock ups you just can’t live down no matter how soberly you behave afterwards. They are a band that makes you feel both better and worse about your current situation. Someone to commiserate with in the corner of a bar, sighing into suds just waiting for last call. They have maintained this posture perfectly through every album.
But ‘Fortune’ is a slight departure. It’s difficult to pinpoint where exactly The Line found its new subject matter. Possibly it was during their long tours of Europe through the past few years. Or this could just be flat out maturation, but ‘Fortune’ seethes with the voice and discontent of the expatriate. As Shannon brays in "Faithful Brother (scourge of the land)," "all these false visions in my head of what united statehood should be." They speak of the welcoming gestures of foreign societies and the unspoken resentments of those same societies for all things American, a shackle perhaps The Line themselves would like to cast off seeing as how the red, white and blue have blatantly ignored them for roughly eight years. No matter though. The Line isn’t just looking back at past mistakes, of those they shouldn’t have slept with one night, forever wishing those mistakes would just go away. Now they are speaking of the ills of our nation, or at least the ills others seem to see in us.
From the opening track, "Fellow Travelers," which features an unexpected chorus intoning the phrases "can’t afford it anyway," and "wash it away," almost as if the act of this song, and perhaps this whole album was a purification ritual, this set seethes with the uncomfortable truth of discontent. These are artists confused, not only by what they see around them, but also by the state of their own lives and the limits of what their talents can impress upon them. There’s no fame to be found in their future, and it’s arguable that they don’t even want that. But The Mendoza Line are feckless students. They watch the world around them. The stomping blood and guts recklessness of our current national rationale, and the quiet truth of a lonely evening with nothing but a bottle as some token solace.
There’s no hope for the endless cascade of doe-eyed dreamers. Leave that for the pop music of the FM graveyard. Music, truly good music emphasizes the simple truth of life. We are human. We are flawed. And bad things often happen but we try to bask in the shallow comfort of knowing that at least it’s universal.
Even the most openly pop themed, up tempo number, "Before I Hit the Wall" denotes this. Peter Hoffman is not telling us how kick ass his life is. He is telling us how kick ass his life could be if all he desired would just magically become true. The have and have nots are becoming more apparent in our everyday lives. And the truth of this is that while Hoffman still could have all he wants, he, like all of us will careen head first into solid brick. We are only mortal after all.
Loose parties and uplifted spirits show themselves only briefly in "The Architect’s Eye," where people find themselves "dangling from the chandelier," but this raucousness is fleeting and though genuine, it speaks of all wild nights with a glossy fabulous exterior hiding a true and much more depressing interior. All parties are superficial and the excitement only extends as far as one is able to capably stretch it. The Line obviously was never intended for feel good group functions. It only stands to reason that a turgid and thoroughly unhappy song should follow. "Metro Pictures," where Tim Bracy and Shannon share lyrics of such resentment to formality and romanticism you would imagine they look upon such trifles as inconvenient chores (it also shocks that the two of them are romantically involved). "And later outside where you told your one true wish and I hid my smile because it sounded so foolish."
But the honest truth is that despite how much their songs seethe with despair, you will always feel a need to listen to them, not just when you’re down. The Line sounds so gorgeous that you can’t help but shiver in pleasure from the beautiful heartbreak. Music shouldn’t sound this good. But it does, and we are all the better for it. Textures and phrases build upon themselves always just one step away from total collapse. In previous albums, oftentimes The Line would just let a track or two fall apart into total chaos, but throughout this album they see their songs to completion. In fact, this is probably their most professional sounding release.
All told The Mendoza Line is one of those sweet secrets you carry around with you. That little band that grants you entry to a secret society, because everyone else is too busy with Coldplay and such. But The Line are not elitists. Their music is truly for everyone. And they never disappoint. "Fortune" is a blessing.
"Got this last one from my diary and throw it in the fire, and start all over again."