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 longtime inspiration Joe Strummer and the demoralizing inevitability of the looming Iraq invasion, it felt to the band 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 work is inspiring and intoxicating and a little exotic, perhaps a folk music analogue to the great Ernest Hemingway expatriate novels of the late 1920's.
Like other great albums that 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 much more poignant then all but a very few of their contemporaries in the folk and pop genres. 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 narguable 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.
If They Knew This Was the End
It 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.
Well, gentlemen, now that the formalities have been dispensed with, I trust we may get down to the business at hand? Item: the enclosed American Book Congress Electric Journal Print Edition. Now, as many of you know, our top scientists, scribes, theologians and wordsmiths at The American Book Congress have been working round the clock to transform our mighty Electric Journal-the only journal which demands the very best for readers-into a palpable, printed form. This we have finally achieved at considerable expense to ourselves and not without significant casualties, but never mind that. The point is, we have done it, the secret formula has been found, and you now hold the fruit of our extensive labors in your hands. Please forego your expressions of gratitude. If you call my office, you will find I am out. Simply understand that in receiving this documentation of the Electric Journal you have entered the ranks of a select group of crack writers and hard-boiled readers-congratulations, gentlemen, you have arrived. In addition, please bear in mind that these papers are top secret, and are be KEPT top secret. They are not to be shared with your friends and loved ones, nor even with the most trusted of your clerks. Thank you-and good reading. - The Commissioner.
We're All In This Alone
Once a bastion of camaraderie and artistic good will, the MENDOZA LINE is now an enterprise entirely shot through with and utterly hollowed out by hatred. Specifically, the women hate the men and the men hate themselves. The many excellent reasons for this development are meticulously and tunefully documented on the new LP "WERE ALL IN THIS ALONE", an album which closely explores the genders' differing outlooks on sex and fidelity, while attempting to ascertain precisely the reason why all romantic relationships must ultimately culminate in a relentless spiral of anguish and misery. Drawing from older influences Elvis Costello, Richard and Linda Thompson, and the McGarrigle sisters as well as an abiding fondness for contemporary acts like Neutral Milk Hotel and Quasi, the guys and girls of the MENDOZA LINE trade off songs, hurling insults and leveling lurid accusations all the way. The effect is that of a blistering, alternately funny and sad forty-two minute argument, suggesting indie-rock's very own answer to "Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf". Which faction of the MENDOZA LINE ultimately prevails is a matter for each individual listener to decide, but there is one matter agreed upon by both sides, and hence bears no dispute: we're all in this alone.
IT HAD TO BEGIN SOMEWHERE...
And so, amidst a general impression that there ought to be more bands that sound like American Music Club, the seven guys and girls comprising the MENDOZA LINE convened in Athens, Ga (where some of them actually attended college, while others merely attended Happy Hour) during the scorching summer of 1995. Bolstered by a shared noncomprehension of their massive local unpopularity, the MENDOZA LINE simply could not be dissuaded from releasing two full length albums and an EP, all on the Kindercore label. Last year's LP release "I Like You When You're Not Around" garnered a number of embarrassingly good reviews, climbed to #28 on the CMJ charts, and eventually sold what everyone involved judged to be a highly surprising number of copies. Baffled but cheerful, the MENDOZA LINE then relocated to NYC (where certain more "intellectually inclined" elements of the band currently pursue graduate work in painting and drawing), signed on to Bar-None Records and prepared to conquer the world, or be conquered, or both. Ranging in age from twenty three to twenty six years old, the MENDOZA LINE still strongly prefers to think of themselves as a "young" band, although in reality all of this is becoming gradually more impossible to justify to their parents.
MORE HISTORICAL OVERVIEW
First convened around the early months of 1995, the Mendoza Line, during a four year residency in Athens, Ga, failed to befriend a single member of the world renowned Elephant Six Recording Collective. It was not for lack of trying: on at least one occasion the group attempted telephoning Kevin Barnes from Of Montreal in the hopes of having him "harmonize" on a track only to be informed that he would be busy consuming meals indefinitely. Shortly thereafter, efforts by Paul to grow a beard resembling that of Scott Spillane from The Gerbils resulted in a discomforting swelling of the chin, and later, a brief hospitalization. Utilizing only the most conventional of instrumentation and recording techniques, the Mendoza Line's utterly familiar brand of sub-industry folk-rock is far more reminiscent of contemporary Christian radio, than say The Music Tapes or Elf Power. Complimented once at a cafe on her jogging acumen by an amiable Jeff Mangum, Shannon became disoriented and was able to respond only with a slur of insults and ambiguous hand gestures. The fruits of this collaboration are evident throughout "We're All In This Alone", already described by some in the know as "the least psychedelic record of the last twenty years, and quite possibly the least interesting."
Other Notes -It is perhaps worth noting that the "Powers That Be" at Bar-None Records, desiring to sell at least a small handful of records, pleaded with the Mendoza Line to allow "We're All In This Alone" with "Baby, I Know What You're Thinking", the track judged by all parties involved to be the least likely to cause the listener to eject "We're All In This Alone" from their CD player within twenty seconds, and proceed directly to their local record store to trade it in for a third copy of "The Albemarle Sound". The Mendoza Line, careening as ever between episodes of craven self-promotion and a relentless determination to fail, when confronted with this request, promptly opted to instead begin the record with ten minutes of meandering gibberish. Therefore they are deserving of and accept all the blame for everything.
-The Mendoza Line are hoping like hell (praying!) to have a runaway, cross-over industry radio sensation of a fluke rock and roll hit with track #4 "Baby, I Know What You're Thinking", or any of the other ones for that matter. This is the only way they can think to pay off the stunning debts accrued by Lori, who seemed to be making sense at the time when she persuaded the rest of the bands members to sell their gear to pay for her fascination with 1-900 telephone betting services. "Baby, I Know What You're Thinking" comes to mind since it qualifies as another in a storied tradition of fine rock and roll singles like "I Should Have Known Better" and "The One I Love", which on first blush appear to express simple emotions of an affectionate nature, but upon closer inspection reveal themselves to contain truly vile and belligerent sentiments. Pete Hoffman is a monster.
-For the most part, recording for "We're All In This Alone" proceeded smoothly and as planned, except for one unnerving incident where-in Peter inadvertently swallowed some of the marbles he and Timothy keep in their mouths while singing, in order to achieve their patented "unintelligible mumbling" vocal style. Refusing traditional medical attention (Peter has long kept a phobic distance from doctors, insisting that they uniformly consist of class consious snobs "like Charles from M*A*S*H"), he opted instead for a steady course of Paul's patented "cure-all" home remedy of Listerine and crutons slathered in apple butter. The results were mixed, and after a few weeks Peter asked if he might be driven to a pasture in the countryside to die. Luckily, no one in the Mendoza Line is in possesion of a valid driver's license, and coincident with the cessation of Paul's "care", Peter's condition gradually began to improve. Now let us never speak of this incident again.