Some band names fit like a fielder’s glove: Joy Division (left-handed), the Replacements, the Mendoza Line. The latter is baseball slang for the lowest acceptable major-league batting average; if you’re straddling it, you’ve got one foot back in the minors. That shaky, barely hanging-on feeling is the Mendoza Line’s specialty, teasing words and catchphrases to keep the wide, indifferent world at bay. With a can’t-do attitude not far from the Manny Farber painting “Keep Blaming Everyone”—a spavined, minutely detailed circular desktop-like composition cluttered with scrappy knickknacks, inspirational imprecations, and scribbled Post-It notes to himself—things never look too good for these querulous boys and girl. The Mendoza Line’s plaintive anti-sentimentality and workaday, piecemeal sing-alongs fit right into the margins: “the little engine that cracked,” “all the world’s clandestine kisses,” “now we’re absolutely screwed.”
Sure, they’re just another Losers Anonymous support group piping in utilitarian rock-folk-country tones and smart-aleck nursery rhymes. Yet the Mendozas sport a more surefire 12-Misstep program than most: No one recovers or improves, the melodies are nearly memorable, the voices are more than bearable, and there’s free beer, bad sex, and unrequited laughs for all.
ML’s history begins in the late antiquity of Athens, Georgia. After 1999’s I Like You When You’re Not Around, a nice, crisp demonstration of unfulfilled potential, the group pulled up stakes and moved to Brooklyn. We’re All in This Alone was a giant step sideways, with the titles (“Everything We Used to Be,” “Assisted Living”) and way copious liner notes (“they had finally arrived at that inevitable impasse where consuming lethargy and sloth eclipsed whatever will they ever possessed”) still ahead of the music itself. “Idiot Heart” was a flash of self-destructive, Mekons-esque greatness, but it was Margaret Maurice’s song, and her farewell to both the band and singer-ringleader-boyfriend Tim Bracy.
Using domestic trauma as a springboard, Bracy and the group returned with 2002’s misery-driven Lost in Revelry: a small classic of no cultural import whatsoever—merely the most likable record of the year, a toothpick Blonde on Blonde held together with chewing gum. Secret weapon? The more prominent voice of Shannon McArdle. Her utterly believable ordinariness has a serrated edge, whether she’s warbling a ditty that could have been inspired by Monica Lewinsky or talking to the faithless man upstairs (“The Way of the Weak”—McArdle’s weary multitracked voice a ghost-worldly echo of solo Lennon). And her harmonies are a countervailing foil for the folkie wispiness that creeps into third-wheel Peter Hoffman’s diction. Still, the centerpiece is Mr. Bracy’s “Triple Bill of Shame,” where he pairs off “4th Time Around” and Loudon Wainwright III to rewrite the book of “pain, degradation, and fear.”
Which brings us to If They Knew This Was the End: what better follow-up to your defining record than a seven-year-old “lost” album? Featuring bonus tracks! Plus members of Drive-By Truckers, Elf Power, and the Glands! Bracy: “When I listen to those songs now, I think of how hapless we were . . . every small interaction turns into a full-fledged catastrophe.” Ah, to be young and flailing away at the chords of “The Seventh Round,” a romantic meta-semaphore about some low draft choice who makes the cut, though the lyrics get drowned in the mix. But there are just enough embryonic beauties like “The Aragon and Trianon” to keep the soft spot in your heart for the band warm until they attempt a proper sequel to Revelry‘s songs of the meek. And we know the warped love-hate relationship God has with them, so how can the Mendoza Line fail to inherit his earth?