THE MENDOZA LINE
During the first week of 2003 the Mendoza Line packed their bags in anticipation of their first-ever overseas appearances in London. It has been frequently observed of the Mendoza Line that they are never short of baggage, and this instance proved no exception: between the unexpected death of long time inspiration Joe Strummer and the demoralizing inevitability of the looming Iraq invasion, it felt to the band that week as though the very planet itself was slumping beneath the millstone burden of forces far beyond their control. The sense of inertia was not in any way aided by Shannon, who had prepared seven separate pieces of luggage as well her "carryall".
Bearing this in mind it is difficult then to calculate how edifying and intrinsically important this trip and subsequent 2003 appearances in Ireland, Scotland and Greece thus proved for the Mendoza Line. For this most inward looking (some would offer "self obsessed") of musical enterprises, the experience of traveling to foreign shores during a tumultuous time in modern history was both an impetus and a mandate to turn their vaunted skill as songwriters towards the outside world. The resulting album "Fortune" features an astonishing series of detailed narratives, some told from the point Americans traveling abroad in 2003, and others from the perspective of recent immigrants to the United States. Interspersed with biting cultural commentary and (of course) a little romance, the resulting works are inspiring and intoxicating and a little exotic, an examination of consumerism and national identity suggesting perhaps a folk music analogue to the great Ernest Hemingway expatriate novels of the late 1920's.
Like other great albums which deftly intertwine the topical with the interpersonal ("Infidels", "Armed Forces", "Squeezing Out Sparks") "Fortune" renders it's serious thematic content with buoyant good humor and infectious tunefulness, underscoring the peculiar alchemy which makes the Mendoza Line both funnier and far more poignant then all but a very few of their contemporaries in the folk and pop genres. "Fortune" is a work of art set in a time wherein everything is for sale - love, sex, high end merchandise, elections- it is a synthetic world readymade for consumption. Real life and events as they occur on television- be they staged drama or "news"- are constantly confused. It is not even understood that there is a relevant distinction. In spite or perhaps because of all this, these are songs of great humanity whose characters are rendered with profound compassion and sympathy. Their brash and occasionally comic air owes much to the great tradition of 1970's pub rock of- if one could imagine Nick Lowe producing mid-period Stones it might sound a bit like "Fortune".
For the many critics
and fans that treasured the Mendoza Line's last release "Lost in
Revelry" in 2002, "Fortune" will both redouble and expand
upon their admiration for a band whose rare vintage somehow improves
with each passing year. And for those pundits who remained unconvinced,
"Fortune" is inarguable evidence of the Mendoza Line's deserved
status in the highest echelons of American folk music. In either case
it serves as a gratifying resolution to the unsettling questions raised
by that previous release: whereas "Lost in Revelry" was a
document of wayward and abandoned souls searching for any direction
but down, "Fortune" is a hopeful and exuberant picture of
a bright light at the end of a long tunnel.
was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was the summer of 1996
and the Mendoza Line were living in Athens, Ga., attempting to compile their
debut album - and wondering if they might just break up in the process.
It is now seven years later and the Mendoza Line are still together, but
that much labored-over album never came out, at least not in the way the
band intended. Until now, that is.
“If They Knew This Was the End” is the missing link that no one was exactly looking for, but that everyone will be glad they found. It shows a preternaturally gifted combo, led by songwriters Tim Bracy and Pete Hoffman, at that evanescent moment when every emotion and experience has to be crammed onto a record, when it feels like you’re on a mission, not merely trying to embark on a career. The album is a testament to the joy and pain of becoming a band, of starting out and sticking it out, and to the enormous talents of a seemingly ramshackle group that has –we think – still only just begun.
Tim Bracy: Pete and I were literally turning out songs two a day, writing them in the car on the way back to town, or planning them out over drinks at night: which people and events were we going to wake up the next day and commemorate in three verses and six chords? It wasn’t all great material by any means – we were aware of this – but in a sense it didn’t matter. We were having an awful lot of fun, and everything we encountered and experienced, however trivial or pivotal in our lives, seemed like it deserved its own song.
The Mendoza Line started out as a loose aggregate of companions, including Hoffman, Bracy, Paul Deppler, Margaret Maurice, and Lori Carrier. They shared a love of such classic songwriters as Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Elvis Costello, and Richard Thompson. Together they sought to distill these influences into a sound falling somewhere between that of the two great pop bands of their formative years – American Music Club and the Replacements. Shannon Mary McArdle joined the band in 1998, and brought with her an extraordinary working knowledge of the folk/country tradition, in addition to an unalloyed affection for the songs of the Brill Building and Roy Orbison.
The Mendoza Line’s adopted home of Athens, Ga., with its laid-back, college-town bohemia, was historically a great jumping-off point for some of the coolest and kookiest bands, starting with the B-52’s in the ‘70s. But in ’96, the Mendoza Line – no matter how cool or kooky -- somehow found themselves feeling out of sync with a local scene that began to head in a wildly retro direction, thanks to the psychedelic stylings of their friends in bands like Olivia Tremor Control and Neutral Milk Hotel from the Elephant 6 label collective.
Tim Bracy: It was as if we woke up once day and suddenly and without explanation every other person we passed on the street was outfitted like Sgt. Pepper! I exaggerate, but not by all that much.
“What’s the matter with the music we grew up with?” the Mendoza Line, still wearing the tee-shirt-and-jeans uniform of the indie rocker, asked in vain. With no answers forthcoming, the combo pulled up stakes and headed north, finally settling in Brooklyn, NYC, the new borough of choice for the idea-rich and the cash-poor.
While the Kindercore label released music by the Mendoza Line from their Athens years, including portions of what would become If They Knew…, it wasn’t exactly in the cohesive form the band had anticipated. They didn’t release a bonafide album of their own design until 2000, when The Mendoza Line transformed their experiences of living and loving, semi-impoverished, in Brooklyn into their Bar/None debut, We’re All In This Alone. The Mendoza Line members were occupying a single apartment crammed with emotional booby traps as well as belongings. What they created in the studio was like a shoe-string-budgeted version of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, with the emphasis on tortured romantic relationships.
As Jason Ankeny of the All Music Guide explained at the time, “…the woozy beauty and emotional depth of We're All in This Alone is nothing short of revelatory…The album channels their interpersonal turmoil into a gorgeously understated examination of the sexual dynamics that divide and conquer men and women alike. The songs proceed in point/counterpoint fashion, with Margaret Maurice and Shannon McArdle contributing the distaff perspective while Timothy Bracy and Peter Hoffman refute the charges; the debate culminates with the record's centerpiece, the lovely ‘Where You'll Land,’ in which both sides at the very least agree that it will all end in tears, regardless of where the blame lies.”
Shortly after the release of …Alone, founding member (and Mr. Bracy’s longtime romantic partner) Margaret Maurice left the group (and Mr. Bracy) to concentrate her efforts on painting. While some consideration was given to disbanding at the time of her departure, it was eventually decided by Bracy and Hoffman that any unwillingness to address this delicate private matter in a highly public forum “just wouldn’t be like them.” So the band did just that with Lost in Revelry, released in early ’02 on the MISRA label.
Some critics actually thought the album was about something more than Tim’s breakup issues, coming as it did at the end of the “new economy” and the dot.com boom, a period when the Mendoza Line’s beloved Brooklyn was being transformed by trendanistas into “the new Manhattan.” The press materials for the album asked the question “So where do we go from here?”
Where, indeed? Until we can properly answer that question, we suggest looking for clues by going back to where this story began – to the fun, the innocence, the jitters, the thrills, the doubt, the despair. To an extraordinary time and place during which epic displays of creative exertion like If They Knew This Was The End seemed not only plausible, but also somehow inevitable.
Tim Bracy: When I listen to those songs now, I think of how hapless we were…On the record, every small interaction turns into a full-fledged catastrophe – “I sent a postcard to you/ Now we are absolutely screwed” – and this was so true of our lives at that time! Friendship, employment, romance – it was just a minefield for us. It makes me laugh hearing us attempt to make sense of it all, and I hope it is humorous to others as well. We just made a calamitous mess of everything.
Sometimes the worst of times turn out to be the best.
“Lost In Revelry” (COOKCD246) is out now through Cooking Vinyl
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