(From a review I wrote for PopMatters that had some strange edits I’ve requested be fixed)
In the 17 years since their debut album, Redo the Stacks, the quartet of Scott Danbom, Mark Hedman, Will Johnson and Matt Pence – better known as Centro- matic – has danced to its own vernacular. Name another band that has made a career out of songs bestowed upon sports (“For New Starts”), athletes (“Strahan has Corralled the Freaks”), cartography (“The Given Geography”) and arcane mathematical equations (“On the Sagtikos”). Fast forward nearly two decades since the auspicious solo project that was Johnson’s apprenticeship mining Robert Pollard-esque lyrics and lo-fi recording techniques to today’s Take Pride in Your Long Odds and you’ll find a band with honed instincts still operating with reckless abandon.
Often compared to Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Centro-matic does nothing to dispel such a ragged connotation on TPIYLO’s self-titled instrumental opener. With its initial strains of Jimi Hendrix’s take on “The Star-Spangled Banner” giving way to a cacophonous blast of melodic indifference, the band’s collective discernment of its own sound marks the proceedings to come. Always the mandarin lyricist, Johnson knows when to confound and amaze: why use “alms” when “eleemosynary” will do (see: “Patience for the Ride” from Fort Recovery. Conversely, can any other singer draw out “down” into four syllables to such affect as Johnson does on the album’s first single, “Salty Disciple”, calling bullshit on Roger (NFL Commissioner Goodell, perhaps?) through impressionistic wordsmithing such as “Ain’t got no telephone, Roger? / That’s just one less connection for me and you”. The sports metaphors don’t end there: the derogatory shorthand of “Hey There, Straps” asks if there’s “Room for my regret there in your cup”.
Survey any number of Centro-matic fans on their favorite album and song and you’ll likely receive no consensus. The joy in deciphering Johnson’s cryptic lyrics amidst the glorious noise made by this brotherhood comes with the job of fandom. With TPIYLO, the galloping tale of escort “Cynthia Glass” and chorus-less “Academy of Lunkers” should find their way into such a debate, as should the pogo bouncing “Relative Unto the Aces” with its mantra of “But you’ve gotta give the nod somehow / To the imbecile sometime”.
The most lucid songs on TPIYLO are the pointed admonition of “On the Ride Back” which rails against drug abuse and recovery’s often-false promises and album closer, “Through the Fog, Then Down”, a subtle, self-castigating tribute to musician and Johnson’s fellow Undertow Orchestra member, Vic Chestnut.
Unlike the aforementioned defensive end with diastema that now co-hosts a daytime talk show, the band’s once prolific output has slowed in recent years. In the time since Centro-matic’s last album, Johnson released an EP (Little Raider), a solo album (Scorpion), toured with Monsters of Folk and contributed to New Multitudes. For a band that began as a collection of friends with no official aim, Centro-matic’s brand of chicanery has served them well, speaking to their longevity and broad body of work that today would find unfavorable odds against such an upstart band. Taken in tandem with the vinyl reissue of Redo the Stacks, TPIYLO demonstrates how far the Denton, Texas foursome has grown musically. More a compendium to 2011’s Candidate Waltz than a sonic step forward, Take Pride in Your Long Odds adds further talking points to Centro-matic’s esteemed canon.