The Mendoza Line's seventh and newest album is my first introduction to the band, so I can't say I know much about them. And I can't say whether Full of Light and Full of Fire finds the alt-pop group adhering to the tried and true formula they've subsisted on since their 1996 inception, or if it shows them testing new musical waters. But I can say, with great confidence, that regardless of the path they chose, their new album shows why prolific talent and an open heart go a long way in making a band last.
It doesn't take time to realize Full of Light is a great album. I knew
it within about 30 seconds of my first listen. The band, originally from Athens,
Georgia, now based in Brooklyn, New York, combines country's warm tones and
pop's jangly melodies with crunching rock structures, achieving energetic, endearing
results. Singer/guitarist Timothy Bracy and vocalist Shannon Mary McArdle take
turns leading the new songs, which makes for a welcome, differing set of emotions,
egos and attitudes. While McArdle recalls a weary, lovelorn Neko Case, Bracy
sounds almost as creaky and drawn-out as Dylan; both are, by the way, impressive,
The Mendoza Line tell dark folk tales from beneath gritty textures and
rollicking beats, and deliver them with steamy appeal. Led by a shuffling beat and moaning, country-Western strings, "Water Surrounds" is a heartsick song about a depressed woman who can't cope with being a mother: "I can't tell the others what I feel/ I sometimes see the light/ But Satan's real." The swinging "Catch a Collapsing Star" features silvery tambourine slaps, wrangling Johnny Cash-style guitar and sassy vocal interplay between McArdle and Bracy. "So what was it/ That you wanted?/ What would you have done/ If you had got it?" McArdle croons, like she already knows the answer. "... Accept no imitation, baby/ Catch a collapsing star/ But it's your limitations that make you what you are," Bracy fights back.
"Rat's Alley" speeds at punk's velocity and is driven by swift hits to the hi-hat, cowbell and feedback pedal, while the woozy "Pipe Stories" moves slow and sad as it surrenders to the president's imagination: "They're losing faith/ Pick up the pace/ And make them feel / This danger's real." Possibly the album's best track, the acoustic-played Dylanesque "Settle Down, Zelda" has Bracy delivering his world-weary lyrics with acquiescent cynicism: "I
want to resign in a pretense of valor/ And find some way to give in/ ... After
all the urges/ Some virtue emerges/ But finally you still gotta pay."
Full of Light closes with a spooky folk song, “Our Love Is Like a Wire,” meant to sound as if it were being performed live by an old couple struggling to recount their life together from behind fragile acoustic strums. "Our love... it was invisible to them all/ Climbing up the wall/ And full of wonder ... it's full of light and full of fire."
The earthy tones, accomplished songwriting and passion within Full of Light give
Mendoza Line newcomers good reason not only to hear their new album, but also
to dig into their back catalog.