Album Review

South San Gabriel - The Carlton Chronicles: Not Until The Operation's Through

South San Gabriel - The Carlton Chronicles: Not Until The Operation's Through

In terms of channeling ambition into strange nooks and crannies, Will Oldham and Conor Oberst might have nothing on Will Johnson. As with those other eccentrics, Johnson's prolific songwriting spills over from his main band (Centro-matic) into side projects. But neither Oldham nor Oberst has recorded an entire song cycle from a cat's viewpoint. With South San Gabriel's third album, Johnson has. The story: The cat, Carlton, stalks a sparrow named Ron, confides in a female cat named Kittyphone, and avoids a dog named Ramon. Abandoning the comforts provided by his human (known only as Owner), he runs into the wilderness, meets and sustains a leg injury from Possum, and limps home to beg forgiveness and await his veterinary fate. Which, as summaries go, really sounds no sillier than "Deaf, dumb and blind boy redeems himself through pinball." The tale relies on style and strength of execution to give it weight. Johnson and South San Gabriel -- which harbors seven other musicians, including the rest of Centro-matic -- evade the trap of cuteness, evoking the stretching lassitude and predatory inscrutability of feline existence. Johnson's voice transmits twangy whispered variations on Neil Young's cautious warble, and the music, from the moody reveille of "The Dark Of Garage" to the sad country-folk of "This Rookie Runs", moves with the creeping quiet of paws in the night. At one point, Carlton proclaims, "It's so nice to be curious and free this way" -- but The Carlton Chronicles softly, gracefully conveys the limits of freedom and the dangers of curiosity.