Discovering Centro-matic around the time they released "Fort Recovery" in 2006 felt like stepping through an overlooked, unmarked door in some side alley of American music and emerging into a vibrant and creative world that had been thriving just out of view. Not quite alt-country and not quite "indie-rock" in that laceratingly cool Strokes-ian sense, the Denton, Texas, band made music seemingly without concern for status or acclaim or anything more than self-expression. What they were doing wasn't a pose, in other words. So it was a genuinely sad occasion when Centro-matic parted ways in 2014 after 20 years together, but singer Will Johnson has thankfully kept busy since then.
His solo album last year, "Hatteras Night, A Good Luck Charm," demonstrated Johnson's knack for hoisting breathtaking melodies from unlikely arrangements, melting dense knots of crumbly, tremolo guitar on songs like "Heresy and Snakes" into choruses that take flight. He's a frequent collaborator, too, having teamed with Jay Farrar, Jim James and Anders Parker for the Woody Guthrie project New Multitudes; and with James, Conor Oberst and M. Ward in Monsters of Folk. Marie/Lepanto is Johnson's latest collaboration, this time with Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster of the Mississippi band Water Liars.
Named for a highway sign somewhere halfway between where Johnson and Kinkel-Schuster each grew up (in Missouri and Arkansas, respectively), the duo recorded its debut, "Tenkiller," at Sam Phillips Recording in Memphis. That's a lot of backstory, so here's the point: "Tenkiller" evokes that same feeling of finding an overlooked musical world, ungraded by NPR or Pitchfork. Johnson's worn-in, parched voice has mellowed over the years, and it's a perfect match for Kinkel-Schuster's warm and tuneful vocals. A couple of the songs songs they wrote are big, noisy rockers — see "Inverness," which is full of cacophonous guitars, or the sprawling solo that spirals out over the last two minutes of "The Rail" — but more of "Tenkiller" tends toward more subdued numbers. An overdriven guitar riff sets up "High Desert," a lonesome song with a huge chorus that soars into a limitless sky. Kinkel-Schuster takes the lead on "Clean Gift," an acoustic song with subtle drums and electric-guitar accents that echoes Johnson's knack for digging out sublime melodies. Johnson sings in dusty tones over quiet acoustic guitar on "Famished Raven" and he adds ghostly harmony to Kinkel-Schuster's vocals on the chorus to "Simple Scenes," a deceptively wrenching tune about the dissolution of a relationship reduced to "complicated lines in simple scenes."
There's a lot of good music on deck for 2018, by established artists and newcomers alike. Johnson and Kinkel-Schuster fly a bit under the radar, but "Tenkiller" is more than good enough to stand out in the sea of all that will follow this year.