Fort Recovery

(Misra; 2006)

By David Greenwald | 8 May 2006

From the first notes of Fort Recovery, Centro-matic just sounds tired. A single electric guitar note hovers idly, and when the rest of the instruments enter, they don’t seem in a rush to take the song anywhere fast. The release of this album coincides with the March celebration of the Texas alt-country leaning rock band’s ten-year anniversary, a span in which the prolific Will Johnson and incarnations of Centro-matic released over a dozen albums. On the heels of a decade of endless touring and two recent albums recorded as South San Gabriel, the moniker reserved for Centro-matic’s quieter work, one would think the group would be ready for a greatest hits collection and some well-deserved rest. But tired is the wrong word. The twelve songs of Fort Recovery find Johnson and his bandmates calm, confident, and brimming with relaxed enthusiasm.

Any energy lacking on the opening “Covered Up In Mines” surfaces immediately in the following track. In “Calling Thermatico,” the twin guitars crunch, the drums pound and Johnson offers up a portrait of a lost friend “intimidated by the officers and prostitutes and lies.” The riff-heavy “Patience for the Ride” is a slow burner in spite of its forceful medium pace, using guitar breaks to hold the sing-along chorus off until the song’s two-minute mark. “Patience” pays off when the chorus reaches its last line, voices and guitars turning to blue notes. Centro-matic covers rugged emotional terrain, and when Johnson sings about “hurricane hearts” in a post-Katrina America, the blow is almost physical.

While Fort Recovery easily be a visceral success on the strength of grunge rock guitars and Johnson’s weathered Texas gruffness – his voice as good an instrument of the working-class American heartland as anyone’s since Bruce Springsteen, arguably – what makes the album great is its marriage between freewheeling rock ‘n’ roll and careful attention to melody. Tuneful musicality is paired with bombast on songs such as “Monument Sails” and “For New Starts,” and as loud as the guitars get, they never feel abrasive. Even “Take a Rake,” the album’s searing finale, slips in a soft vocal harmony.

Several ballads fit snugly among the more raucous tracks, thanks to the album’s consistent compositional depth. “I See Through You” is placed perfectly after the one-two punch of “Calling Thermatico” and “Patience for the Ride,” setting Johnson’s musings against the gentle plucking of acoustic guitars. “The more I learn about this world / The less I find out I’m afraid,” he sings comfortingly, pausing before finishing the line “…to die.” It’s a far from morbid statement, especially when he changes the lyric’s second half to the tender “I learn through you.”

Only the strangely muted “Take the Maps and Run” feels out of place during an initial listen, but its hypnotic strumming soon reveals itself as a preface to the stormy “Take a Rake.” Every moment of the album seems constructed with purpose, structured enough to intrigue the mind while its sonics aim right for the chest. Fort Recovery is full of the musical and songwriting wrinkles it takes a long career to achieve, and after ten years, the tireless musicians of Centro-matic aren’t so much showing their ages as they are celebrating their maturity.