Our relationship with art changes over time. In our instantaneous iPhone age, we don’t live with albums or movies or TV shows or books like we used to. With Re-Reviews, we re-explore our relationship with a piece of pop culture — and how that relationship evolves over time. We dismiss some art unfairly — or prematurely. Perhaps certain songs or bits of dialogue didn’t resonate because of our mood or our position in life. On the other hand, perhaps our adoration of some childhood favorite is clouded by nostalgia. Does this even matter?
In high school, I let slip to a friend’s step-father that I didn’t know how to ride a bike. “Oh, I envy you,” he sighed. I was struck by his response, but I wouldn’t understand it for another seven years. I assume I crashed a lot that day, but I don’t remember doing so. What I do remember, vividly, is the moment I felt my weight settle over the crossbar, my feet pedaling without requiring my concentration and my eyes scanning the expanse before me rather than the three feet directly in front of my wobbly front wheel. It was an embarrassingly long overdue rite of passage.
What I suspect my friend’s step-father envied was that this initial thrill of discovery was still ahead of me, yet to be experienced. While far less frequent in middle age, moments like these come with a particular frequency and potency in the transition to adulthood. It’s one of the reasons why so many first novels are coming of age tales. Think The Catcher in the Rye; Goodbye, Columbus; Mysteries of Pittsburgh, or, more recently, The Art of Fielding — the stories are tangles of youthful exploration as the writers themselves likewise blossom into the full force of their own craft. For Centro-matic’s Will Johnson, Redo the Stacks is a coming of age story in album form.
In the spring of 1995, Johnson moved from Dallas to Denton, a small college town less than an hour north of Dallas that nevertheless feels insulated from Big D’s frenetic bustle and anonymizing size. He was the drummer for a regionally successful band, but he was also writing his own songs. In Denton, he encountered a supportive music community with a devil-may-care attitude toward creative expression. “That feeling got under my skin in a good way,” Johnson remembers. “I liked that energy a lot, and that inspired me to feel a little less inhibited about writing songs and try my hand at singing.”
By the time his band broke up in the summer of 1996, Johnson had experienced “a windfall of inspiration and new material,” finishing or mostly finishing the twenty three songs that went on to become Redo the Stacks. He enlisted fellow drummer Matt Pence to record his songs over the winter break from school. Pence set up a control room in the upstairs of his home, dangling cables down the stairwell and through the ceiling into a small live room crammed with instruments and microphones. Fueled by gas station coffee drinks and crackers, the two spent eight to 10 hours a day working on the songs for the better part of three weeks. With the exception of the occasional violin or cello, Johnson played every instrument on every song, completing the entirety of the tracking before school resumed again.
The resulting album radiates with the manic fervor of youth, hardly letting up between songs, filling the interstitial moments with yelps and laughter, counts and clicks, buzzing amps, clipped conversations, and feedback that bleeds from one song into the next. Johnson’s exuberance inflates the songs like helium in a balloon, some – like “Rock and Roll Eyes,” a brash, telling-off of hangers-on awash in sloshy hi-hat – to the point of nearly bursting. “Fidgeting Wildly,” despite being one of the slower songs, captures the essence of the album as it nervously rattles against the empty spaces, impatient for the next moment of release.
The title of one such moment of release, “Am I The Manager Or Am I Not?,” is lifted from a snippet of overheard dialogue from a story Johnson was reading for school – Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The song has nothing else to do with Conrad and his, as Chinua Achebe put it, “steady, ponderous” storytelling. Rather, it’s restless and anxious, wrestling with commitment and obligation in that short-sided way that the young think of time.
Post-colonial British literature and a crappy fast food job don’t have much in common, but Johnson instinctually collages together seemingly odd pairings like this one throughout the album and makes them fit. It’s an ethos on display on the song “Mandatory on the Attack,” when Johnson sings, “You might as well steal it and you might as well sing it if it sounds okay.” With a raucous confidence propelling the songs, it sounds far better than okay.
Redo the Stacks, despite being recorded under the Centro-matic name, was never intended to launch a new band. Still, once done there was no going back to the solo electric shows Johnson had been playing around Denton. “Matt Pence and I had been living in those songs for six weeks; [they] were very much in our fibers,” he says. “There just came a point where I thought it would be great to play the full out versions of these songs.”
Johnson reached out to Pence and Mark Hedman, a former bandmate of Pence’s, before a show. “We had this little makeshift acoustic rehearsal and just went down to the club and brought all our gear and played real loud,” says Johnson. “I don’t think the people who put on the show were expecting me to roll in with a band and make a big noise, but we did.” Scott Danbom, who had provided the violin tracks for the recording, joined after the second such show, and it was only then that the band had its first ever formal rehearsal.
On June 3rd, Centro-matic released their 11th full length, Take Pride in Your Long Odds. In conjunction with the release, the band also reissued a remastered vinyl-only run of Redo the Stacks. The two albums’ differences highlight the band Centro-matic have grown to become, yet 17 years later, Stacks feels remarkably fresh. The DIY recording approach garnered early comparisons to Guided by Voices and Sentridoh, but by and large the album eluded the ’90s production trappings du jour that might have marred it to more modern ears. More importantly, it simmers with a sense of wonder and excitement that isn’t unique to any one era – “the ambient noise of the contemporary” (as Zadie Smith calls it) is always changing, but the essential feeling of first discovering the world and your place within it is as universal as it is fleeting.
For long-time Centro-matic fans, Redo the Stacks’ appeal is much like that of reading a coming of age novel later in life. Its immediacy and vitality remind us of those memories that burn so brightly in our memories but are increasingly distant from our everyday lives. For those who have never heard it, the album arguably offers even more: the exultation and surprise that comes with experiencing something for the first time. I’m grateful to have come of age alongside Redo the Stacks — yet it’s the latter group, the one this reissue is truly meant for, that I envy now.