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The Mendoza Line - Full of Light and Full of Fire

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Artist: The Mendoza Line

Album: Full of Light and Full of Fire

Label: Misra

Review date: Mar. 12, 2006

If for no other reason than pure longevity, this release by the Mendoza Line marks something of a milestone. For a band who more or less prided themselves on instability, backbiting, and patchy shows, they’ve now released their seventh album and are teetering on the brink of becoming old pros. Although the band might retch at notions of “maturity,” their last three or four records have shown a band developing its songcraft and relying more on nuanced musicianship to generate excitement than the threat of immanent collapse. Full of Light and Full of Fire has neither the stylistic jumps of 2002’s Lost In Revelry or the ambition of 2004’s Fortune, but it’s a satisfying, confident album that refines the band’s sound along the lines of those previous outings.

One of the most noticeable differences marking the record is co-founder Pete Hoffman’s absence. According to the band, he “didn’t feel like making a record right now,” and while his pop sensibility is missed, Shannon McArdle and Tim Bracy have capably stepped forward to shoulder the weight of the record. Recently married (to each other) Bracy and McArdle trade tales of abandonment and romantic woe, but only a casual ear would hear this as some kind of treatise on their relationship. A closer listen betrays a subtle dissection of lost, drifting Americans, from suicidal stay-at-home moms to a morally concerned guard at Guantanamo.

On Fortune, it felt like the band had very consciously decided to tackle post-9/11 America, and while that album had moments of brilliance, its thematic necessities sometimes overwhelmed the lightness of touch that marks the ML’s best work. Full of Light… is more relaxed in its approach and is the stronger for it. This combination of lyrical deftness and musical assurance makes for some lovely moments, particularly on the album’s opener, “Water Surrounds,” which concerns the aforementioned suicidal mom. A gently insistent guitar line wraps itself around McArdle’s voice, which quietly describes someone privately losing her mind. The warmth and beauty of the music act like a sucker-punch when you realize what the song is really about, and the sadness of it truly sinks in.

This album also represents the Mendoza Line’s most fully-formed rejection of its indie-rock past and a complete embrace of Bracy and McArdle’s not-so-hip influences: Elvis Costello, American Music Club, Loudon Wainwright, and early R.E.M. These bands represent the flipside of the post-punk coin of the early ’80s, and as a lot of bands are learning, you can only get so far by shamelessly ripping off Liquid Liquid basslines. The ML have managed to create their own space by investing themselves in a kind of ethos rather than a particular style, living and dying by the quality of their songs.

Released concurrently with Full of Light and Full of Fire is The View From the Floor, a Bracy/McCardle side project that goes by the moniker Slow Dazzle. Although it might seem strange to require such a release just at the moment that they’ve essentially become the sole songwriters for the Mendoza Line, the album does represent a departure, of sorts. Recorded on the cheap in a loft, you can sense the late nights and sense of “what if?” experimentalism that went into the album’s recording. In practical terms, this means some unusual song structures and the occasional drum machine. There’s a great Leonard Cohen cover made all the more surprising by being taken from one of his late albums, and at its best, the album recalls the earlier days of the ML when more or less anything could be attempted on record. It’s an enjoyable batch of songs, but its eclectic nature jars with the consistency of the Mendoza Line’s recent approach.

Which is perhaps as it should be. No matter how “professional” the band gets, one of the Mendoza Line’s primary charms is the sense of spontaneity and enjoyment they bring to playing, and their ability to throw curveballs. These two records document a band that is both at the height of its powers and still willing to experiment and tinker with its formula. As conflicted, contradictory, and occasionally triumphant as the America they describe in their songs, the Mendoza Line have become one of the most reliably unreliable bands out there.

By Jason Dungan

Other Reviews of The Mendoza Line

Lost In Revelry


Full of Light and Full of Fire

30 Year Low

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View all articles by Jason Dungan

Find out more about Misra

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