Ghost of the highway

Texas seems to lug along with it a peculiarly vast number of ghosts. Monster trucks, border towns, busty ing?nues and dusty roads all mark the Lone Star State, producing a simultaneously delightful and dire mythology -- topped only by the sun-kissed guise of California or New York's throbbing ant farm of Manhattanites.

While you either love or don't really like places like Cali or NYC, you either love Texas or you hate it. Its contemporary visual iconography -- barbecue, Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders and George W. Bush -- can be a dominant force. It's a wonder that folks could notice something -- anything -- else.

But echoing through the rafters of rickety bars across the state is that "something else." Singing out Texan voodoo from the backtracks is Will Johnson and his elusive Centro-Matic -- part rock & roll witchery, part Texas ambassador, part musical Einstein. Texas never sounded so notorious.

Although sometimes drowned out by the sweltering heat, Johnson's voice -- and Centro-Matic's new album, "Love You Just the Same" -- hangs a layer of mental pollution over metropolises worldwide. Despair. Aching. Celebration. Catchiness. Distress. Urgency. Beer-soaked diligence. It's all here, swirling around the record player (yeah, they still exist in Texas) while Johnson recounts the rights and wrongs of love and hate and disappointment. We don't really understand why he's swirling around so fast until we find out where he's from, and what that means.

"I'm constantly intrigued by [the Texas] beauty, heat, guilt, hospitality, mystery, barbecue, music and its fascinating mix of history and madness," says Johnson. "The Texas hill country is my favorite place on Earth."

Each night, via recording or live performance, Johnson and Centro-Matic attempt to conjure up the distant memory of sweat-drenched Texas solitude. We don't know if any of the mental pictures they paint are true, and we don't care. While Centro-Matic inadvertently matches their lo-fi, DIY recording ethics to the dogma of back-in-the-day Texas, road-weary souls pick up on Johnson's incessant sincerity and cling to his desperate wail. This is drivin' music made for good, hard-workin' folk who don't "dress to the nines" or "tarry a nickel." Whatever that means.

Johnson might actually know what it means, but part of his mystique, and subsequent genius, is that he doesn't let on. He knows a lot of things -- about music; about love; about romanticism (the band is named for an accordion that Johnson owned but "couldn't really play"); about writing; about being a little bit of a whiner. He writes a whole damn lot about all of it. Johnson is so possessed by the songwriting bug that it confines him to studios for up to six weeks at a time (one time in a Milstadt, Ill. studio owned by ex-Son Volter Jay Farrar). The creative maelstrom has resulted in more than 200 songs since Johnson left the band Funland in 1996 -- more than 13 albums of material in less than seven years. Either Longhorn nightlife is a shit sandwich or the state's beauty demands to be put to paper. We'll never know.

"There's songs everywhere," Johnson says. "I tend to write in batches on a four-track. Sometimes I'll write and record 30 or 40 songs over a 10-day span, then not write a thing for a month or two. I think it's just a matter of grabbing [the songs] out of the air and making them yours."

What we do know is that Johnson's newest opus is "Love You Just the Same," a finicky album of Adam Duritz yearn-alikes ("Supercar"), "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" B-sides ("Flashes and Cables") and, oddly enough, arena-rocking numbers ("Without You"). It's not as kitschy as it sounds. The improvisational feel of the tracks lends a live feel to the disc. Johnson attributes this to the band's impulsive recording ethic.

"We all love spontaneous moments on our records," bassist Matt Hedman says. "I'm a big fan of a moment on 'Curb Your Turbulence' from "The Static vs. the Strings Vol. 1" where Matt [Pence] accidentally drops his drumsticks. That makes it worth listening to again."

Through Johnson, songs from "Love You Just the Same" lose any past connotation and embark on a road all their own. "All the Lightning Rods" takes flight through his listless vulnerability. "Picking Up Too Fast" sounds like the realization that a relationship ended long ago, the lover now little more than a ghost to him.

Ghosts figure big with Johnson, who contends that Centro-Matic was formed out of a spontaneous need to rid himself of Texas' spirits and ghouls. He's a guy who used to motion to "the band he never had" while playing empty bars and dimly lit laundromats. But if there was ever a time to rid himself of these roaming prairie specters, it was then -- before they ate up the songs he had on his four-track and the music he heard in his head.


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