A funny thing happened on my second spin through Candidate Waltz: I caught myself singing along. It was surprising, but not because Centro-Matic’s Will Johnson—who also records as South San Gabriel and under his own name—hasn’t written catchy songs before. He has, especially in Centro-Matic. South San Gabriel dwells more in sprawling, pedal-steeled indie-folk that has its own charm, but they’re not sing-along songs. And even in Centro-Matic’s more fast-paced and focused outlet, Johnson has always had a rambling way about him, lending the albums a loose yet monochromatic feel on the first few listens. He often makes up for that lack of immediacy with enduring textures, but it can take patience.
Candidate Waltz is the best of both worlds, an album that connects the second and 15th time through. It’s a simple record—light on atmospherics, heavy on hooks and riffs that grab with white knuckles. “Only in My Double Mind” pounds with arena-rock drums and dirty, downstrummed guitar. Staccato piano and a bouncy beat anchor the melody of “Solid States,” while the “Gimme what you want, but don’t tell me” clap-along outro of “Estimate x 3” is Centro-Matic at its most lighthearted and brain-lodging. In short, these are rock songs—unadorned, straightforward rock songs. “All the Talkers”—which uses power chords to tell the story of a fledgling band (“they were raw”) winning over an apathetic crowd (“They played until we had been won… It was not like the night before”)—could be a Hold Steady cover. And I mean that in the awesome way.
Aside from “All the Talkers,” Johnson’s lyrics are typically enigmatic and more about creating images or an overarching feeling than spinning yarns. It’s more about the way he sings the words, the mood he evokes, rather than the words themselves. Sure, that’s sometimes code for “lazy songwriting,” but with Johnson, that’s not (usually) the case. On Candidate Waltz, the riffage, the tattered vocals and the taut melodies suck you into that happy place where, if you’re picking up what Johnson is throwing down, great. And if not, great. The album resonates either way.
Since the players in Centro-Matic and South San Gabriel overlap, I’ve always thought it would serve Johnson best to just combine the bands. And not in the way he did it last time on Dual Hawks, a double album of sorts—one by Centro-Matic, one by South San Gabriel. The bands’ styles are more complementary than contradictory, and Johnson would do well to mix them together more on a single album, including this one. “Shadow, Follow Me,” for instance, succeeds as a downtempo breather, and the album could stand another chance to catch its breath. But at nine tracks in 33 minutes, Candidate Waltz hardly overstays its welcome, and it’s hard to fault Johnson for keeping it punchy and direct. After all, this is a rock n’ roll record.