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Centro-Matic: Redo The Stacks

Redo The Stacks
(Steve Records)

The context: Indie-rock's obsession with sounding gritty and homemade has lately given way to the slick multi-tracked sheen afforded by digital-recording software, but in the beginning, indie was more or less defined by the sort of DIY, lo-fi aesthetic embraced by bands like Superchunk, Sebadoh, and Guided By Voices. More than just a rejection of studio artifice, lo-fi exposed the regular guy at the heart of a song: An imperfect voice and the occasional fuck-up didn't matter, so long as the emotions were there. Such go-for-brokeness is the hallmark of musicians like Centro-Matic's Will Johnson, who began composing 1997's Redo The Stacks on his four-track while drumming with (now-defunct) Texas power-pop outfit Funland. Along with his early seven-inches, Johnson's 22-song debut had a visceral, labor-of-love quality—Johnson provided nearly every instrument and vocal part himself—that made it infinitely more affecting than Weezer's similar Pinkerton, also released that year. While Johnson obviously shared Weezer's affinity for thick, distorted guitars and classic pop melodies, he combined them with the obtuse lyricism (and bedroom recording techniques) of Robert Pollard, and sung them in a ragged, alternately celebratory and wounded voice. Johnson later turned Centro-Matic into a genuine band and took to the studios for records like the much quieter Navigational and last year's excellent Fort Recovery, but Redo The Stacks remains his most galvanizing work.

The greatness: The brief opener "The Pilot's On The Wall" might as well be a Guided By Voices cover, so shamelessly does it ape Pollard's "Here's a decent tune I recorded on the fly but couldn't be arsed to finish" vibe. But the crash of soaring Dinosaur Jr. guitar and red-lined drums kicking off "Parade Of Choosers" reassures listeners that Johnson isn't trying to pass off sketches as songs. "Choosers" is a slice of giddy nihilism couched in a sly indictment (of the scene? Of consumers?), although admittedly, that interpretation is based more on feeling than on inscrutable lyrics like "Watching all these ones by twos / All clad in sequined nooses." While the sunny harmonies and wordless "shoo-doop" backing vocals on songs like "Terrified Anyway" and "If I Had A Dartgun" make Weezer comparisons unavoidable, and GBV looms large again over "Am I The Manager Or Am I Not?" (a title straight out of the Book Of Pollard), Johnson finds his own voice on world-weary numbers like "Post-It Notes From The State Hospital," aided by a melancholy violin, and "Starfighter #1479," perhaps the most emotive elegy ever written for a video-game character. The album runs out of steam in its final third, as any 22-song record will, but it recovers for the penultimate track, "Mandatory On The Attack," where Johnson sings, "You might as well fake it if it sounds okay"—a fitting credo for the lo-fi movement if there ever was one.

Defining song: "Don't Smash The Qualifying Man" begins (like many others on the album) with the oddly comforting scrapes and breathy room noises of cheap microphones being put into place, followed by the album's thickest guitar riff, obviously the result of Johnson plugging directly into his four-track. Delightfully unhinged lyrics like "You said you weren't the devil, but I don't know" and choruses of "Shout it!" lend to the manic-episode feeling, and the whole song feels like a tossed-off number spontaneously put to tape before heading off to a significantly less fun day job. Ah, the '90s.