One of the debated principles of quantum physics is that observation becomes its own variable. The very fact that we see something take place alters its taking place as if the touch of our eyes knocks things slightly off balance. Our way of seeing frames the things we see. Our way of hearing filters what arrives at our ears. We are the weary servants of our biases.
I can pretend to have received El Cento’s album with complete objectivity, but I saw the band’s photograph before I heard the album. That had me playing carnival age-guesser, trying my best to be polite about it all the while knowing the money is on my ability to guess accurately. I don’t claim to know exactly how old the three members of El Cento are – I’m only a carney, after all – but I know El Cento is not a trio of teenagers taking their first crack at making a record. It’s a moot point anyway, because I know Don Cento has spent the past decade playing music.
Before I get accused of ageism, you have to admit that songwriters, as a rule, age in dog-years. Something compelling comes out of callow youths who still have vinegar pumping in their veins. Whatever can be said for wizened philosophers and novelists, the inverse is usually true for pop music. Legends like Cash and Dylan obviously buck this trend, but I can point to just as many who lost touch as the years transpired, became riffed-out of creativity.
The self-titled, debut album from El Cento is the creative enterprise of Don Cento, who, after serving as a contributing musician in Chomsky and Shibboleth, is attempting to castle his way to frontman. El Cento forced me into two practices I normally abhor: reviewing an album about which I am not initially excited and comparing one band with another. (The latter, by the way, is the laziest form of music journalism. You should forgive no one for it; least of all me, here.)
Song order, like the age and look of a band, is another undeniable influence on how listeners process music. El Cento doesn’t really gain momentum until the sixth song. “Daylight” evokes the kind of Jimmy Buffet leisure-rock that gets vets in trouble. It is disconnected and uninspiring. But somewhere around the end of “I am the Stereo” or the beginning of “Anna Lee,” I realize that El Cento sounds hauntingly like The Cars.
I am not as opposed to artistic mimicking as you might think, particularly when it’s done well. El Cento endears themselves to me for exactly the same reasons The Cars do. It is spare pop that never gives the impression of pandering. It is clever without being pedantic. It is catchy without grounding you into irritation. Don Cento even shares something of Ric Ocasek’s unreadable expression. (Don’t get the wrong idea. I’m referring to a similarity that is more demeanor than physical. He is far from the all-ugly team Ric belongs on.)
Don Cento has made every effort to make his compositions sound polished and austere. This puritan approach to sound gives his voice ample room to move. Metaphors are liberal and made without flinching. What Cento lacks in range, he makes up for in boldness.
At its worst, El Cento’s debut suffers from the over-tinkering impulses you would expect from a veteran. At its most alluring, the album disarms you of some essential objections, which are a kind of over-tinkering in their own right. El Cento doesn’t exactly give you anything new, but it does make an admirable attempt at evading your every bias.
Photo credit: Lee Setty