The Mendoza Line


(Bar None; 2004)

By Aaron Newell | 19 October 2007

From Fortune features an astonishing series of detailed narratives, some told from the point of view of Americans traveling abroad in 2003, and others from the perspective of recent immigrants to the United States.

Who cares? To suck your listener into your little artistic endeavour you have to bait the hook. A Grand Don’t Come For Free was risky, but Skinner knew he had the type of personality to pull it off. That’s why the beats could suck as bad as they did – all the record needed to speak for it was Skinner’s writing and delivery. Anything else would have drowned him out and stinted the whole affair. I’ll even look past the painful Smashmouthian hook of “Fit But You Know It” when given those few ad-libbed oi’s in trade-off. You can’t help it; you want to hang out with Skinner.

Shut up, Aaron, what do The Streets have to do with The Mendoza Line anyway? Well, my complaint here is that, while this technically is enjoyable alt-country circa a half-album before Summerteeth, genre-standard romance and arrangements muffle the otherwise “astonishing narratives.” Musically, there’s the scattered “experimental” electronic bleep, but typical Fortune percussion could be one of 10 rollicky “country rock” presets on the keyboard, the guitars offer little innovation be they roadhousing or cheaptricking, the arrangements are so predictable that you’d remark “there should be slides here” if there weren’t, and the structures (aside from the sweet little Loretta slow-down of “Flat Feet and Western Style”) are straight out of the textbook of, well, Wilco and, well, ok, Billy Bragg and, well, of course, Uncle Tupelo.

Which isn’t to say that the album is not “solid”---for that it is. It simply loses a little heat coming off of the cookie tray. And sounding instrumentally like basic Wilco is certainly not a detriment, but it’s only complimentary if you are, indeed, Wilco, and even they don’t like doing that any more. To further push comparisons, female vocalist Shannon Mary McArdle is equal parts Loretta and Neko, but she claimed the wrong parts as she lacks the persuasive heart-n-soul of both. Singer Timothy Bracy’s off-key swoon-croon makes like Blonde on Blonde, and the other two lead vocalists are seldom remarkable enough to distinguish one from the other. So I’m not even going to Google them.

Despite playing the second-tier songstress (given that the top tier is a damn good one, a B grade on this particular bell curve should still earn dessert after dinner), McArdle does turn out one of the album’s two outstanding songs. “Throw It In the Fire” opens with the atmospheric cymbals of Eric’s Trip’s “Stove” but staggers its way into a bluesy country ballad that laments---guess what---a cheating husband (the cuckoldess’ diary is the kindling referred to in the title). A sweet organ deepens the mood as the song fades out on ponderous atmospherics: now McArdle’s character has to “start all over again.” This is simple, personal, and touching… and uncharacteristic of most of the record’s static, stifled stories.

The ultimate highlight, however, comes with the heatwave opener: “Fellow Travelers.” Bracy’s doing his damndest to stay on the piano stool; he’s tone-deaf, he’s America writing a song to its immigrants, and he’s damn smart: “You played your game, you made a list, painted your face, held up your first until someone slapped your limp wrist silly.” Welcome to America, leave your dreams at the border. Bracy continues: “God knows why you even came to watch us burn…I can’t afford you anyway.” Yes, there’s a slide guitar, yes, this is a mid-tempo chunker, yes, there’s a New Orleans gospel choir that commands “Watch us burning!” and, yes, it starts off with some key tinkling and rises to an all-in fiery climax. But damn if it doesn’t do all of the above about as perfectly as it could. Unlike much of the rest of Fortune, nothing gets lost in the mix here: not even the story, not even the moral.

The “fortune” referred to in the title is the one that might turn up after sifting forever beneath the dilute layers of genre pretense and cookie-cutter country rock. While panning, the seeker should ask: is all this stooping over worth it for a couple of nuggets and some fools’ gold? It might be time for The Mendoza Line to find some new streams.