Only ardent baseball fans know infielder Mario Mendoza’s sorry legacy: giving a name to the humiliating .200 average. (Despite a final career mark of .215, he finished five of his nine seasons batting below one-in-five.) It is in that self-effacing spirit, and with a certain chutzpah, that the Mendoza Line stake their claim in the world of indie rock with catchy, smart songs that chronicle disintegrating relationships with wit, honesty and an eye for heartbreaking detail. Despite elaborate efforts to conceal their talents, the band has developed into a competent, consistent outfit that has made a number of great records that will no doubt fare better in posterity than their namesake.
Attending the University of Georgia in the mid-’90s, guitarists/vocalists Timothy Bracy and Peter Hoffman, bassist Paul Deppler, drummer Andres Gadalmes and singers Lori Carrier and Margaret Maurice found themselves out of step with the Athens zeitgeist, which at the time was the ’60s-obsessed psychedelia of friends and labelmates like Of Montreal, Olivia Tremor Control and Elf Power. Poems to a Pawnshop reveals the more contemporary influence of the Replacements, Hüsker Dü and Elvis Costello; songs like “Dollars to Donuts” and “Small Town Napoleons” (a thinly veiled jab at their label’s owners) have a shambolic charm and a contagious energy. For the most part, the band seems content to tear through their songs without regard to musical dynamics or listeners’ pain threshold, but reveals a quieter, more intimate side in the apologetic “I Behaved That Way” (which features some great dobro action) and “If You Knew Her As I Know Her,” a surprisingly sweet acoustic number for a friend having a rough time.
I Like You When You’re Not Around reveals a band confident enough to at least turn the fracas down a bit, revealing more moments of embarrassment, heartbreak and collegiate angst. The songs are poppier; the arrangements bring out the melodies of “You Twitch When You Dream” (with a simple but fetching trumpet solo) and “(We’ll Never Make) The Final Reel,” which bounces along on a new wavey drum track. These subtleties, as well as the strings on “The Living Theater” and keyboard touches throughout, complement the improvements in the already-good songs and the band’s ability to play them.
Graduation put the future of the Mendoza Line in doubt, since everyone in the band wanted to move away from Athens. Somehow they all found themselves in New York, picking up new member Shannon McArdle along the way. Luckily it all worked out, as We’re All in this Alone is great. Raggedy pop songs like the super-catchy “Baby, I Know What You’re Thinking” (“I’ve been resting on laurels too long / I’ve been leaning on morals too long / But I love the way you look on my arm”) and “Yoko’s in the Band” sit nicely alongside more downbeat — but no less memorable — fare like Hoffman’s “Everything We Used to Be” (“When there’s no fix to be found / Please don’t ask me to be your methadone.”) and the pretty acoustic “Williamsburg.” Contributions from the band’s female members are fabulous: McArdle’s winsome “You Singled Me Out” and Maurice’s snotty “Idiot Heart” are every bit as good as the boys’ tunes, and create a “he said, she said” vibe that gives the record personality. Bassist Deppler’s liner notes assessing the Mendoza Line story are almost as entertaining as the songs themselves.
Carrier and Maurice left the fold before 2002’s Lost in Revelry, but the record is still a triumph, albeit a dour and heartsick one. “A Damn Good Disguise” is loping country-rock with Bracy’s Dylan-esque rasp, Imperial Bedroom-era Costello wordplay and fine pedal steel, a beer-soaked cautionary tale to a friend (or perhaps enemy; one never knows with this lot) veering full-speed down a dangerous path: “You’re killing me with protocol, you act just like you’ve seen it all but I don’t think you’ve seen this / A big shot at the mini-mall, you learned to fuck before you could crawl, that don’t make you a genius.” McArdle’s “Something Dark” confronts and belittles an unfaithful lover: “I didn’t know you liked a girl in a hat / You told me once if I went out like that / You wouldn’t split the bill.” Even the band’s more rocking songs are more sophisticated, like the late-period-Replacements-influenced “Under Radar” and “We’re All in This Alone,” but the general mood is reflected more by the tragic and soft-spoken “Triple Bill of Shame” and “Queen of England” (“You thought you were in love / That’s ’cause I bought you pancakes / Call it an honest mistake / But for god’s sake don’t call it love”). A harrowing but beautiful listen.
With Kindercore gone, the band took matters into their own hands and re-released their debut, altered significantly and re-titled If They Knew This Was the End. They dropped four weak songs in favor of unreleased but illuminating leftovers from those early sessions (and from the 10-song Like Someone in Love, which temper the more raucous material. “Molly, Please Stop Touching Me” is an endearing romp with barrelhouse piano, while “Jefferson” and “140 Lbs. Doesn’t Make a Man” are fine, Band-influenced pieces of Americana that were decidedly not in line with the Kindercore sound, but find a welcome home here.
Reaching beyond its indie-rock roots for inspiration, the Mendoza Line made the finest album of its career. The songs on Fortune are both personal and political. The scenes of disillusionment, restlessness and anger might be addressed to their country (and countrymen), as on the opening “Fellow Travelers,” and Hoffman’s gorgeously sad “Let’s Not Talk About It.” McArdle steals the show with some of her finest songwriting: the scorching “Faithful Brother” (“I was queen of your city / Now I’m scourge of the land”), the brassy “It’s A Long Line (but It Moves Quickly)” and “Throw It in the Fire,” a testament to the time-honored concept of starting all over again somewhere else. The new lineup (with the addition of multi-instrumentalist John Troutman and drummer Sean Fogarty) sounds fresh and energetic, and the songs combine a love of Stonesy white-blues shuffles (“Metro Pictures”), Richard & Linda Thompson-esque folk balladry (“Will You Be Here Tomorrow”) and bracing indie guitar-rock (“Before I Hit the Wall”). The powerful collective vision reflects three unique songwriters whose sum is greater their parts.
Returning to baseball for the title, Sent Down to AA is a typical odds and ends collection offering fine live tunes (Bracy’s solo “Casey at the Bar”), outtakes (“Our Consumptive King” is a highlight), radio sessions, covers and compilation tracks.