Centro-Matic at the Horseshoe (370 Queen West), Wednesday (April 5). $9. 416-598-4753. Rating: NNNNN
Since most record labels aren't keen on releasing more than one album per artist each year, exceptionally prolific songwriters are left to come up with creative methods to get their music out.
Robert Pollard, for example, comes up with a new band alias for each new collection of studio experiments. North Texas tunesmith Will Johnson alternates releases between his two main groups: South San Gabriel and Centro-Matic.
Even though South San Gabriel and Centro-Matic share the same core members (namely Scott Danbom, Mark Hedman and Matt Pence), they've been able to develop and maintain separate identities over the past decade, with their own stylistic approach and repertoire. In sort of a parallel universe situation, Centro-Matic favours the recklessly hard-cranking numbers and leaves the hazy, downtempo stuff to South San Gabriel. Neither band would dare perform a song by the other for fear of messing with the whole space-time continuum.
However, there are instances on Centro-Matic's new Fort Recovery (Misra) disc where the well-defined boundaries between the bands begin to blur, particularly on the more sombre ruminations like I See Through You and In Such Crooked Time, which could've come from any South San Gabriel album that wasn't a song cycle about a sick cat.
"It's interesting that the songs you mentioned were the two that we had some discussion about where they fit in," says Johnson over his cellphone. "I See Through You deals with some adult themes concerning the family in a more straightforward manner than is typical for Centro-Matic, so I get your point about the crossover.
"Because it's the same songwriter, there are bound to be some similarities; I don't think that can be avoided. We still strive to approach each band as its own thing with different intentions."
Juggling two bands evidently isn't enough for Johnson. When not writing, recording and touring with Centro-Matic and South San Gabriel, he's been touring with the Undertow Orchestra, a singer/songwriter supergroup involving Vic Chesnutt, Mark Eitzel and David Bazan of Pedro the Lion infamy, who all happen to be managed by Bob Andrews of Undertow Management.
"The shows have been so much fun that we're planning to meet up later this year to do some recording. Each of us will bring three or four songs to the session and we'll just go for it."
There was initially some question about whether Chesnutt, the only beardless member, was right for the project. But according to Johnson, he quickly grew into his position once they began playing together.
"When we all showed up the first day with serious facial hair, I think Vic felt a little peer pressure, so he started growing a beard of his own right away. I'd never seen a beard on him before, but I have to say he was looking good by the end of the tour."
And Johnson knows beards. Long before facial hair became a popular trend, Johnson was well known for his inventive and some might say courageous chin concoctions.
"I've always looked at beards as more of a practical thing - it's a good way to keep warm - but I admit that I enjoy tinkering with different styles. For a while there, all four of us in Centro-Matic had pretty daring beard experiments going on. Scott's started coming in kinda sketchy, but after three weeks it turned into something special - a Swedish tennis star look."
Lately, Johnson has been spotting more beards at Centro-Matic gigs, which he characterizes as "not quite lumberjack conventions yet, but getting close."
It might be time to start showcasing the more creative examples each night.
"That's a great idea! We can have the audience vote on the best beard. and we can post snapshots of the winners on our website. I think we'll start tonight."