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The Mendoza Line - Fortune

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Artist: The Mendoza Line

Album: Fortune

Label: Bar-None

Review date: Sep. 2, 2004

Although the Mendoza Line get tagged as troubadours of failure, that label is slightly unfair, or rather, it misses the point. Sure, the band is named after the mythical batting average that separates minor-leaguers from those who make the majors, and the Mendoza Line have had a slow learning curve. But despite the shifting group politics and once-chaotic live show, these are people deeply concerned with what’s happening around them, and they are a serious band.

Relationship songs were always the central focus of the Line’s country-tinged indie rock, but on 2002’s Lost In Revelry, something changed. The band had finally resolved a stable line-up, after a move to Brooklyn from Athens and some apparent soul-searching. They also executed a subtle but essential stylistic shift, fully embracing their country leanings, as well as the earthy folk-rock of 1970s-era Dylan and ’80s bands like the American Music Club. Lost In Revelry was a complex dissection of the social politics of Williamsburg pre-September 11th, a place where middle class youths came for artistic glory, only to end up washed away in bars and bad jobs and steadily decreasing expectations. It was a brilliant, emotionally messy album, pushed and pulled by the voices of three singer/songwriters: Timothy Bracy, Shannon McArdle, and Pete Hoffman.

Previously infamous for Fleetwood Mac-style intraband tension and self-deprecating love songs, this was something new. No one else was really saying these things, dissecting the young middle-classes in such a biting, rousing fashion, and the album struck a chord. True to the band’s profile, the chord was not struck with legions, but rather with a steadily increasing few who have gradually turned on others to the Mendoza Line’s charms. Indeed, at the band’s shows in London, I’ve never seen more than 60 or 70 people, but those who were there were screaming their heads off. The band’s live set has been tightened and improved – now a warm looseness pervade the shows, rather than the sense that someone might fall off of the stage or completely forget the words.

Expectations rose, then, for the new album, and it does not disappoint. Whether or not it will rocket the band into some form of stardom is unclear (and improbable), but the first song on Fortune, “Fellow Travellers”, bests everything the band has done before. Coasting smoothly on a pedal steel line and Bracy’s grave denunciation of a relationship (or Bush’s America?), the song gives way to a haunting, incredibly beautiful gospel-tinged chorus. It’s by far the most musically ambitious song the band have ever cooked up, slyly anthemic, sad and emotionally resonant. Indeed, for a band whose average age probably hovers at around 29, the ‘Line now possess a maturity in their songwriting that most indie-rock stalwarts can only dream of.

Generally, it’s a punchier, more rock-oriented album than Revelry, especially on Shannon McArdle’s contributions, which alternate between ’80s-style rock and a percussion-heavy take on country. “It’s A Long Line (But It Moves Quickly)” is a particular standout, a rocking kiss-off to a boyfriend’s former lover. Elsewhere, her duet with Bracy on “An Architect’s Eye” makes for one of the album’s finest moments, a swaggering, sexy rock song that sounds like it could have been written by the J. Geils Band.

The Mendoza Line might be resolutely classical when it comes to their music, but they’ve turned their folk-rock influences inside-out into something new and wonderfully anachronistic. They’ve also gained a shit-hot guitarist, John Troutman, who dramatically extends the potential of the band’s arrangements. Many of the songs here swing in a way that one could barely imagine from the Mendoza Line’s early albums; there’s a freedom in the playing that feels warm and spontaneous, even though the production is often densely layered.

The songs understandably reflect life in New York post-9/11, albeit obliquely. Those events register on the record more in terms of atmosphere than specifics, certainly in the edge of weariness that pervades some of the songwriting. After the attacks on New York, everyone spoke of a “new sincerity,” the idea that America would become a much more open-minded, thoughtful place. Perhaps one of the more disheartening results of that terrible moment has been seeing how quickly we all returned to our old, venal, petty selves. No one trusts each other, people are scared, and dissent has quickly become either treasonous or too much trouble. Greil Marcus has referred to the Mendoza Line as “hiding out” inside this new America, which seems like an apt description. Invisibly, they’ve been documenting their friends, their city, the country. Whatever impact they might make almost seems secondary to the fact that they’re doing what they’re doing at all. There are, as ever, some great love songs on this record, but they’re more than just love songs: “Let’s Not Talk About It” suggests either a fight with a reticent lover or a denial of the trauma going on around us. “Before I Hit The Wall” details the quintessential American experience of confusing freedom with self-abnegation, having the desire for a good high and a fast ride in spite of its consequences.

Typically, the Mendoza Line cloak much of their more serious musings in humor and hooks; they’re too self-aware to wallow or wail. But the songs here are wonderful, sad, funny things, poking around in our fears and loves and seeing what they can find. Like most everyone else, the Mendoza Line don’t know how to make sense of our difficult, traumatic, sometimes still wonderful time, and they’re well aware that rock isn’t going to really change anything. But they’re damn sure that it helps.

By Jason Dungan

Other Reviews of The Mendoza Line

Lost In Revelry

Full of Light and Full of Fire

Full of Light and Full of Fire

30 Year Low

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View all articles by Jason Dungan

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