South San Gabriel – The Carlton Chronicles: Not Until the Operation’s Through

South San Gabriel
The Carlton Chronicles: Not Until the Operation’s Through

Give South San Gabriel’s new album more than just a few listens, I implore you. Yes, on first listens, you’ll no doubt enjoy the subtle and folk-influenced style of Will Johnson’s (Centro-Matic) music. Johnson and company (which includes all the members of Centro-Matic plus others for a community affair) mix folk and indie rock with pop to create subtle yet sweet songs in the vein of Smog or Sufjan Stevens, and that’s delightful in and of itself. Yet beneath the surface, you’ll find this is – with no apologies – a concept album.

The concept is not a new one. The main character, Carlton, resents his life and dreams of freedom, but upon achieving it, he realizes that his previous life was not so bad. The themes of mortality and reconciliation resonate universally through these changing tracks. The thing is, the story is told from the point of view of Carlton the cat, and somehow that changes the whole way you should listen to this album.

The opening “Charred Resentment the Same” is my favorite track, a quiet and pleading track of our hero’s need for freedom and disdain for his captor. Over the course of the album, he commiserates with his companions, makes a run at freedom, then returns when discovering the great wide world is not for him. The songs change styles subtly, nicely matching the themes of these lyrics.

See the melancholy country-rock of “Predatory King Today,” the very folky and rich “Affection’s the Pay,” and the very soft “This Rookie Runs.” These quieter tracks show the range of styles South San Gabriel offers. “The Dark of Garage,” telling the story of Carlton’s curiosity leading to an overnight stay in the garage, is a wonderfully sweet feeling full-band affair. “I Am Six Pounds of Dynamite,” besides being a wonderful title for a song about a cat, is a gloriously chiming and uplifting affair, and “Stupid is as Stupid Does” rides soft beats and gorgeous organ to send Johnson’s voice soaring in a dreamy and contemplative track.

Yes, perhaps there’s a bit of silliness in telling the story of a cat. This is Johnson’s side project, and he can be forgiven for trying something fun and creative. If the music wasn’t worthwhile, you may deride this as pretentious, but these songs are wonderful, rich, and lovely, soft and moving. Without knowing this is the story of a cat, you can immediately relate to the themes of these songs. And thus Johnson has written two concept albums, one a story of a pet and one of the human condition. It’s a wonderful affair and highly recommended on several levels.