River City ~ Dispatches from Austin

Monday, June 03, 2002

The first thing to strike me about the band was their name: The Mendoza Line. As I strained to place the reference, I realized it was buried somewhere far away from rock & roll. Texas Rangers fans might remember a somewhat inconsequential, bespectacled first baseman named Mario Mendoza. Mendoza was one of those everyday, hard-working players who showed up to the ballpark without much fanfare. He played for the Rangers in the late seventies to early eighties, and wouldn't have ranked much more than a speck on the baseball map if it weren't for his spectacular record in underachievement: Mendoza garnered a lifetime batting average of something just over .200. In baseball, that ain't so hot. I'm not sure where or when the term was coined, but at some point, struggling players were said to be trying to "get above the Mendoza line."

Wherever he is, Mario can see his name in lights again, thanks to Brooklyn band "The Mendoza Line." These indie-alt-country rockers have been steadily raising their own bar and have gathered critical acclaim for their latest album, Lost in Revelry, released in February. And if you missed it then, and didn't see them at South by Southwest, it might be time to step up to the plate and welcome yourself to one of the best albums of the year.

Lost in Revelry is well-conceived and really a great listen. Its timeless sound is the result of a great line dance between subtlety and swagger. It's music that should sound full of pretense, but without an ounce of it. There is an attitude in the sound and the lyrics that makes you feel personally involved in the songs.

The opening cut, "A Damn Good Disguise," is the album's most engaging, largely because of the way it sets up this mood. Infused with a heavy dose of southern steel guitar, the galloping song hits on all cylinders. Rolling through lines like "I won't be there when you change your mind/but if your heart should change I guess I might be found/whether covered with lies under paint that never dries / it'll take a damn good disguise to live this one down," it's joined with hootin' and hollerin background vocals, and an organ that kicks in as the song builds. You can hear Steve Earle, Uncle Tupelo, Dylan; but this song and this sound belong exclusively to The Mendoza Line. "Something Dark," with lead vocals by Shannon Mary McArdle, is like an other-worldly Lucinda Williams tryst. A spurned McArdle sings to her man: "I didn't know you liked a girl in a hat/You told me once if I went out like that that you wouldn't split the bill."

These guys apparently got started in Georgia, and the southern influence serves them well. It also deserts them, for some reason, in the second half of Lost in Revelry. It's a strange passage, but not necessarily a bad one. They sound much more like an indie band on cuts like "Under Radio," drawing closer comparisons to the Pixies or Built to Spill than anything country. Lost in Revelry isn't perfect, and the weakness lies in some of the songs later in the album. "I'm That!" and closer "The Way of the Weak" showcase McArdle leading us on renditions that sound strikingly like Yo La Tengo. The sound just gets somewhat slow and bogged down. Nothing grabs you like the front end of Revelry: The shining moments on the album really stand out in "Disguise," as well as the smooth, catchy "Whatever Happened to You," the urgent "It'll Be the Same Without You," and the mellow, dream-like "Triple Bill of Shame." The jangly guitars and alt-country sound is a perfect backdrop to the unassuming and sometimes rough-voiced vocals. And I'm not saying that just because I'm from Texas, and have a soft spot for southern sounds and ex-Texas Rangers.

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