Welcome, Convalescence

South San Gabriel

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Welcome, Convalescence Review

by John Schacht

South San Gabriel's Welcome, Convalescence begins, incongruously enough, with a lo-fi field recording of children skating in an ice rink (SSG is the quiet side-project of Will Johnson's noisy rock outfit, Centro-Matic, whose members all appear here). A piped-in Bach partita co-mingles with the children's gleeful shouts and laughter, the combination a wistful remembrance of things past. It's also a harbinger of the melancholia to come, which transcends anything the prolific Texan Johnson has done either with Centro-Matic or as a solo artist. Illness, death, crumbling relationships, and suicide recur with stark frequency. But for all its bleak narration, Welcome, Convalescence is one of those brilliantly despondent records so gorgeously executed it lifts your spirit just to be able to feel its sadness (hence the title). Virtually everything works together in a holistic confluence of sound, vision, and narration. The intersecting lines of the circling skaters in the introduction eventually mirrors the elegant weave of instrumentation so essential to each of the nine sad songs that make up the disc. For instance, on the opening cut, "New Brookland," the field recordings fade beneath a wash of organ from Centro's regular multi-instrumentalist Scott Danbom. That's followed in stately order by: the gently plucked acoustic of fellow Texan Brent Best (Slobberbone); the keening pedal steel of Joe Butcher (Pleasant Grove); Danbom again, overdubbed on elegiac fiddle; and a complementary program sample from regular Centro drummer Matt Pence. Ninety seconds in, Johnson's tremulous vocals finally join the proceedings with a knife-like opening couplet -- "Make no mistake, we'll be the ones/To happily set you on fire." The song's lyrics end with more mirrored imagery reflecting the character's doom -- "In figure eights you try your escape/The beginning is always the ending." As with all the songs, this one unfurls like a narcotized heartbeat. And like Johnson's lonesome characters, the songs drift inexorably into one another's space, precluding neat endings, resolutions, or closure of any kind. Only rarely does Johnson break the spell, with a pair of brief but nevertheless unfortunate a cappellas: the three-minute "Ariza/284," and a two-minute coda at the end of the otherwise sublime "Everglades." Other than those rare moments, though, Johnson and Co. have crafted a melancholic masterpiece, an auditory salve for any wounds incurred along the way.

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