Keeping track of the distinctions between Centro-matic and South San Gabriel could be a full-time effort, if one were so inclined. Based in Denton, Texas, Centro-matic once titled an album South San Gabriel Songs/Music, only to give a splinter faction of the participating musicians—meaning Centro-matic and more friends—the name South San Gabriel and release that album in Europe under the new band name. South San Gabriel includes the four core members of Centro-matic, plus additional members, but we’ll get to that shortly. You might be inclined to say that Centro-matic material tends to be more rockin’, with SSG its mellow, literary counterpart, and Will Johnson’s solo material as…well…usually (how shall I put this?) skinny-dipping in the abyss—but it would be a gross oversimplification. Each of these projects shares all of the aforementioned respective qualities and more. What is distinctive about the release of Dual Hawks is that we get the chance to hear side-by-side the various ways in which Centro-matic and South San Gabriel complement and play off of each other—sort of the full-length equivalent of a split single.
Named for a model of an Italian accordion, Centro-matic began as little more than a home-recording outlet for Will Johnson’s unstoppable muse. Redo the Stacks (1997) was primarily the work of Johnson, with soon-to-be Centro-matic members Scott Danbom on violin and Matt Pence in the recording engineer’s seat. The band soon grew to become a more collaborative effort, with Danbom (“the pride of Ponca City, Oklahoma”) on keyboards, bass, and vocals, as well as the occasional violin, Pence on drums and production/engineering duties, and Mark Hedman on bass and guitar.
The head wound may have been a setback (as the name of Johnson’s music-publishing company implies), but it was by no means the expiration of Will Johnson’s songwriting prowess. Far from it. Over the past decade, we have been treated to—I hope I get the count right (or that somebody who hasn’t been drinking the tequila Will brought over fact-checks this thing)—nine Centro-matic albums, four EPs, five singles, two South San Gabriel albums, two Johnson solo efforts (as well as a tour-only release)—every one a Maserati. Some bands focus on quality; others on quantity. With Dual Hawks, the respective bands prove once again that they are one of the rare breeds who can do both. Catchy hooks, wiry guitars, harmonies and handclaps, splendid string and horn arrangements, and songs so well written and produced they will make indie-rockers of lesser mettle go home and cry.
I had the good fortune of spending some time on the road with these folks a few years back, and let me tell ya, in this business we call “show,” you meet some characters (not all of whom you’d feel comfortable having over for a barbecue). What struck me about Centro-matic and Co. was not simply that they are extremely talented musicians, producers, and arrangers, or that they are road-seasoned to the point of seeming incapable of performing a stale, by-the-numbers show, or that they consistently (and as frequently as their label will permit) put out stunning and at times breathtaking recordings, or that they are among the finest people I’ve been given the opportunity to know—but that they are all the encapsulation of of these things and more. Every day. Centro-matic and South San Gabriel are, in a word, exceptional (in all senses of the term). I would tell you more, but I don’t want to ruin the thrill you will get when you put Dual Hawks on for the first time. And I can guarantee you, it won’t be the last.