The ragged rock and roll that Will Johnson and his band Centro-matic have been putting out for almost 15 years may not be the most hip thing going, but that is part of its appeal. There is nothing self-conscious or self-referential about the band’s work. Johnson is an unassuming frontman, but not in the fey, navel-gazing way so many new (and dull) frontmen are. Johnson is a guy who lets the songs — and his sweetly gruff voice — do the talking.
The band’s new record then, Candidate Waltz, may seem like more of the same solid rock you’d expect from Centro-matic, but further listens reveal it’s after two pretty disparate things at once. For one, it’s as close as the band has come to a pop record. It’s certainly their catchiest set since 2004’s Flashes and Cables (the band’s high-water mark), and the song’s have a brightness and driving pulse to them.
However, this isn’t just pop bliss. After Dual Hawks, 2008’s dual release from Centro-matic and South San Gabriel (Johnson’s other band), the band’s sound has gotten more complex. These seemingly simple pop songs are often crowded and tangled in compelling ways by less comfortable layers. The darker moods and rough layers of South San Gabriel bleed into the rock tunes here, so the otherwise bouncy “Iso-Residue” gets hit with acidic guitar solos, the otherwise subdued and tuneful “Solid States” is abraded by guitar fills so distorted Neil Young would blush, and opener “Against the Line” is thick with spacey layers and loops that render an otherwise hushed opener something far more sinister and satisfying.
For nine songs, the band delivers hook after hook and Johnson’s voice is as smokey and beautiful as ever as his often plainspoken lyrics prove once again deceptively insightful and emotive. A closing line like “Give me what you want, but don’t tell me” on “Estimate x 3” ripples out and bleeds into other songs, painting the entire record with that pull between desire and restraint. Candidate Waltz is another satisfying record, and one that meshes well the immediacy of rock music with the thick textures of Johnson’s darker experiments. It may not have the knockout highs that Dual Hawks or Flashes and Cables had, but it is just as consistent all the way through. So don’t expect this one on the overhead speakers at Urban Outfitters, but rest assured when those bands are long gone, Centro-matic will still be churning out their steady, sweet tunes.