MENDOZA LINE with Great Lake Swimmers , Picastro and DJ Country Slaughter at the Rivoli (334 Queen West), Wednesday (December 14). $10. 416-596-1908, www.rivoli.ca.
Minnie Mendoza had an unremarkable career in baseball. In fact, it was so underwhelming that his dismal batting average (.215) became the benchmark for complacent mediocrity in the majors, and the Mendoza Line entered baseball's vernacular as a reference to the lowest acceptable home plate performance a player can offer his club without being sent back to the minors.
When Shannon McArdle first joined the Mendoza Line, the group was releasing unfocused albums and becoming so disenchanted with their home city of Athens, Georgia, that they almost dissolved. Eight years later, the once peripheral member is now co-leader and has pulled the band out of the dugout and given them a talented and commanding presence for co-songwriter Tim Bracy to play off.
It also helps that their newfound cohesiveness isn't just musical any more - it's matrimonial.
"I've been married [to Bracy] for six weeks, so we'll just see what happens," laughs McArdle about the team's coherent "working" relationship. "We're supportive of each other, and it definitely made it easier. The writing isn't so personal now. Like, in the past we would fight and write mean songs about each other. I remember hearing Tim's songs and wondering who the girl was he was singing about."
Mendoza's new album, Full Of Life And Full of Fire, reflects their new maturity. Seven albums into Mendoza's career, their dusty twang rock - which in the past was steeped in the kind of self-pitying lamentation that Midwest bands like early Wilco and the Replacements successfully wallowed in - has been revamped thanks to McArdle's desire to shed her narcissistic youth.
"As we got older, we think of the world differently," she says. "I used to go on drinking binges and write about that. Now that kind of thing seems small compared to the problems of the world. If the politics turn people off, I don't care. It's a price I'm willing to pay because I think it's a substantial record."
While Bracy still embraces the anguished resignation of a Paul Westerberg in his writing (listen to Settle Down, Zelda and Catch A Collapsing Star), McArdle, an avid Elvis Costello fan, nicely wraps her political dissidence in country melodies that drift alongside Bracy's stripped-down guitar work. Her delicate jabs at Bush in Pipe Stories are a seductive listen, and Golden Boy (Torture In The Shed), about the plight of oppressed Saudi women, is a disarmingly catchy upbeat rocker.
However, it's the morose tale of a suicidal mother taking her infant down with her in Water Surrounds that carries the album's most unsettling charm.
"It is extremely depressing," concedes McArdle about the album's downer intro. "It was just a character I conjured up in my mind, but it seems to have people a little upset and uncomfortable. I guess people were expecting something more cheerful."
McArdle didn't always have such unflinching confidence in her creative powers. When Bracy first approached her to sing backup, the newly graduated Athens native had little musical experience outside of frequenting local gigs in the musically storied college town.
"When I was in Athens, I didn't have anything to do with music," she recalls. "I just started singing a little bit on Tim's record, and it went on from there. I just kept trying and trying. No one stopped me."
The band eventually swapped Athens for Brooklyn, but don't start wagging a trend-jumping finger at their relocation. McArdle and Bracy have been there for almost eight years and appear to harbour plenty of disdain for the over-hyped New York borough.
"I hate Williamsburg," exclaims McArdle about the too-cool-for-school Brooklyn neighbourhood. "It's the whitest place ever, and I find it hard to believe that many artists come out of there, because those kids don't have a care in the world. We live in Crown Heights, which is a very family kind of place and has a lot less pretense. Willamsburg is just not reality, which I guess makes it a lot like Athens."