Essentially the first South San Gabriel album in all but name. The first official SSG record wouldn't appear until 18 months later in Europe (the stateside version was a Centro disc called South San Gabriel Songs), but Navigational is certainly the style of laid-back record that would become the norm for the Centro-Matic side project. In July and August of 1998, leader Will Johnson, drummer Matt Pence, cellist/violinist Scott Danbom, and bassist Mark Hedman accepted the invitation of Jay Farrar (Son Volt) to record at his Milstadt, IL, studio, Jajouka. The band emerged from those sessions with over 60 songs, with most of the noisier, lo-fi, anthemic tunes appearing on The Static vs. the Strings, Vol. 1, and the majority of the quieter, more emotive tracks making up Navigational. That's not to say Navigational doesn't have its powerful moments. "Ordinary Days" may begin with a gently loping pace, but as it explodes into feedback-drenched crescendo, the listener gets a great example of Centro-Matic's rare ability to mix urgent, indie sentiments with shout-along, arena rock-style anthems. "The Massacre Went Well" is another explosive song, but perhaps the most effecting of these is the transcendent "Numbers One & Three," which begins with Johnson singing over a fingerpicked electric. He's joined by Pence's march-like press rolls, a series of crashing, singalong "sha-la-la" choruses, and finally Danbom's fiddle at the four-minute mark to help accent the gorgeous outro. But, for the most part, the 16 tracks are mostly mellow sketches that begin with Johnson's plaintive voice and simple guitar strums or piano chords. Eventually they're fleshed out by Danbom's string work, Pence's rock-solid but subtle drumming, and overdubbed backup vocals by Johnson. "Ruin This With Style," "With Respect to Alcohol" (a favorite Centro theme), and "All Hail the Label Scouts" (with its wonderful major-label kiss-off: "at last this rockin' bullsh*t swindle leads to your demise") all fit this format successfully. But the piano-driven, melancholic love song "The Panacea Tonight" is perhaps the best of these, a haunting tune that adds tape loops and synth wash to its basic Centro sound without ever diluting the music's message. When Johnson imploringly insists that "when you're with me, the brighter the stars seem to shine," it's hard to argue with the intelligent display of raw emotion that Centro-Matic/South San Gabriel conjures up. Truly an underappreciated American act.
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AllMusic Review by John Schacht