The Mendoza Line 30 Year Low; Final Reflections of the Legendary Malcontent

[Glurp; 2007]

Rating: 3; 2.5/5

Styles: indie-r’n’r, Americana, breakup blues
Others: Bob Dylan, The Replacements, Grandaddy

A man calls up his lawyer to tell him he wants a divorce from his wife. "Do you have grounds?" asks the lawyer. "You bet I have grounds," the man replies. "Can you believe my wife told me I'm a lousy lover?" The lawyer answers back, "Is that why you're filing for divorce?" "No," the man says, "I'm filing because she knows the difference."

Meh. It was worth a try, but divorce is rarely funny. The dreamer in all of us likes to think that even the most ridiculous of celebrity scam marriages start with a kernel of hope and happiness. In music circles, the dissolution of marriage often results in an outpouring of pent-up bile and regret and, more often than not, an inspired heartfelt corker of an album. The benchmarks are plenty: Dylan's Blood on the Tracks, Richard Buckner's Devotion + Doubt, Paul Simon's Still Crazy After All These Years, and the granddaddy of them all, Richard and Linda Thompson's Shoot Out the Lights. Nothing on the new Mendoza Line album reaches the dizzying highs (and lows) of the Thompson's "Don't Renege On Our Love," but some come excitingly close (and besides, there are not many albums that plumb the same emotional depths of the Thompson's "relationship" masterpieces).

30 Year Low is The Mendoza Line's "divorce" album, or at least between the songwriters Tim Bracy and Shannon McArdle, ending the prolific career (eight albums in ten years) of a band who carved out a humble niche as unsung heroes of textbook indie-pop songwriting. Unsurprisingly, the album is filled with songs about broken alliances, promises, and aging anxiety, and although it doesn't take solid gold ears to distinguish between Bracy and McArdles's song contributions on 30 Year Low, both seem to be on the same page throughout the album. Many tracks are thinly veiled or decidedly unveiled accusations with very little self-pity.

Oddly, "Since I Came" starts the album with a thematic curveball. It is a sentimental paean about the unseen, unheard immigrant poor in Georgia, setting the tone for 30 Year Low like how "The Greatest" does for the most recent Cat Power album. Unfortunately, it also sets the bar too high. While the rest of the album flirts with the shivering, uncomfortable mood found on this opener, it infrequently equals it.

That doesn't mean 30 Year Low lacks great moments. The superb "Aspect of an Old Maid" rumbles along like Bruce Springsteen crossed with The Ladybug Transistor and features McArdle defiantly sparring not with her ex but with Okkervil River's Will Sheff in grand back-and-forth style. "I Lost My Taste" is a neat number by Bracy that juxtaposes prettiness with Velvets-borrowed fuzz chaos (and a heavily mimicked Dylan delivery). The remaining tracks dabble in alt-country waltz time, and straightforward barnburners. It is all very "Mendoza Line": good in parts, but not exactly testes-tingling either. For example, "31 Candles" harks back to The Replacements, but if you are planning on walking down that well-worn route, wouldn't you opt for the exhilarating strut of early classics like Let It Be or Tim rather than the latter-day averageness of All Shook Down?

Even though acrimony underlies the album, 30 Year Low is the result of two souls venting, but ultimately writing not to forget. More importantly, they makes it crystal clear that hearts can be broken but spirits never. There is a lot of reflection here, but it is also an optimistic and confident album, despite the explicit themes of communication and marital breakdown and growing old (some will scoff at "growing old" at 30, but upheaval knows no age). Diehard fans will certainly disagree, but I am actually more giddy at the thought of McArdle and Bracy's imminent projects apart than the (now dead) prospect of them together on another Mendoza Line album. Both know that anger and betrayal are cleverly disguised, survival tactic gifts for reconciliation and redemption, that bitter pain is an all-important coping elixir. And everyone knows that this is the first step to real healing.

[Final Reflections of the Legendary Malcontent is an odds-and-sods collection of covers, live and unreleased tracks, and demos, which works nicely alongside 30 Year Low -- like the band is cleaning out and divvying up old memories before reexamining lives, assets, and abilities, making necessary adjustments for the next phase. Some cover selections are inspired (curiously, Arab Strap's "Packs of Three"), others are stripped-down but faithful (and obvious) choices (Richard Thompson's "Withered and Died," Bruce Springsteen's "Tougher Than the Rest," Bob Dylan's "It Takes a Lot To Laugh, It Takes a Train To Cry"), and some sound like warm-up exercises (again, curiously, Cole Porter's "Anything Goes"). There are also some great standard Mendoza Line rockers that we have come to expect from the band (the great "It Helps To Leave the House," the jaunty story-in-song "Tax Me") plus three live presents. It is a bit of a "fan's only" cluster of curios, but coming at the end of a of an impressive but hardly world-beating career, it serves as an appropriate companion piece and chapter closer.]

30 Year Low:

1. Since I Came
2. Aspect of an Old Maid
3. 31 Candles
4. I Lost My Taste
5. Love on Parole
6. Stepping on My Heart
7. Thirty Year Low
8. Tell It To the Raven

Final Reflections of the Legendary Malcontent:

1. Anything Goes
2. It Helps To Leave the House
3. Fleur de Lie (live)
4. Withered and Died
5. Tougher Than the Rest
6. Go Shopping
7. Now Or Never Or Later (original demo)
8. Packs of Three
9. Tax Me
10. It Takes a Lot To Laugh, It Takes a Train To Cry
11. I Am Small
12. Golden Boy (live)
13. The Likely Nominee
14. Mysterious In Black (live)
15. Mike T. Interlude
16. Over the Hill
17. Angry Crafts
18. Metro Pictures (alternate take)

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