Foreign Departures

The Mendoza Line's 'Fortune' takes an ambiguous look at outsiders' perspectives of the United States

The liner notes to The Mendoza Line's fifth album, Fortune, begin with a screenplay starring the members of the band (Timothy Bracy, Paul Deppler, Sean Fogerty, Peter Hoffman, Shannon McArdle and John Troutman) engaged in an interpretive political drama.

Names like Haliburton, Dick Cheney and allusions to the president are thrown in alongside journalists and the music magazines Spin and Magnet. The band members are portrayed as onlookers, and as generals and commanders, and the whole thing is extremely ambiguous, much like the songs themselves on Fortune.

After touring abroad and encountering the faces of foreigners who were critical of American foreign policy, The Mendoza Line were inspired to put these experiences to music. Fortune is the result, a record with songs indirectly dealing with American cultural imperialism, digging through the years of rot and rust layered on the American dream.

"We've traveled, not a whole lot, but over the past couple years in the UK and in Greece ... the attitudes of people (were) very nice and warm toward us but really very upset and curious about our country and our government, and it was just really eye-opening to us, because we didn't know that the attitude was so bad toward Americans," said songwriter and vocalist Shannon McArdle.

In the past, the band's music--country stylings infused with rock elements--wasn't particularly political, which makes Fortune a departure, in more ways than one.

"I suppose in the past, for example, We're All in This Alone and Lost in Revelry, which were the last two, were just a lot more personal, a lot more love songs or depressing songs about very close relationships, and (were) pretty easy to read. We felt that we really needed to get away from that; we don't want to be known as the band who just writes about bitter break-ups and bad relationships and being miserable, because we're really not miserable," McArdle said. "(Fortune) is political, but we try to mask it a little bit, but I think ... that it's very hard to write political songs, protest songs. ... Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan do it quite effectively, but we're not as comfortable doing that, so we mask it behind different names and maybe make it a little more ambiguous to get away with it. But with this record, we felt it was really our responsibility to write something political just because you can't really ignore what's happening in this country."

McArdle, Bracy (whose father, incidentally, is the chair of the Morris K. Udall Foundation here in town), and Hoffman all write songs and sing for the Mendoza Line, and there is a distinct tone to each songwriter's style. McArdle's songs are more vintage country, and Bracy and Hoffman are more Dylan-esque pop rockers. Said McArdle, "I think Tim's songs are lyrically centered, and Pete's more of sort of the melodic pop genius, and I'm somewhere in the middle, so I guess it's a nice balance."

Since there are six band members, the songs are busy, but they have a relaxed feel to them; The Mendoza Line capture that breezy country vibe well; the band is from New York by way of Athens, Ga., and they do have a big-city country sound. New York City, explained McArdle, since it's so much bigger than Athens, simply gives them more to write about. McArdle teaches English as a second language in New York, and so her songs are often from the point of view of foreigners who have moved to this country, and their unique take on American culture.

"My perspective is more from foreigners that I know in this country; my spin is a little more feminist in a way, just sort of a woman's perspective, maybe a Korean woman's perspective, coming to this county and having the pressure from her parents to marry someone American, and her seeing her brother being treated so much better (and) men in her country being treated so much better. Just the idea that our country is this land of opportunity that it's really not," said McArdle.

"Flat Feet and Western Style" tells that story, and "Faithful Brother" hints at it. The rest of the songs on Fortune are, like McArdle said, much more ambiguous; much like the screenplay in the liner notes, each song has a political tone with the meaning being up to individual interpretation.

Although Fortune deals with weighty issues, the music is far from depressing. "Before I Hit the Wall" begins with a two-note rock and roll piano line, and then dives into a fuzzy bass-line on the lyric "I want a big car and a kicking stereo, one that can go anywhere I wanna go." "It's a Long Line (But It Moves Quickly)" centers its melody around a pedal steel, and McArdle's voice dips into a country drawl on the pre-chorus, and "An Architect's Eye" sounds like something off of Blonde on Blonde.

Most of the songs, though, rest more heavily on the lyrics than the music itself. The Mendoza Line add a hyped-up twinge to the alt-country style, but at times, the hyped-up songs have too much going on, and the songs get a little muddy. The band is best when they keep the air flowing through the songs, and interestingly enough, those are the songs that are more personal and relationship-oriented, which is what McArdle said they were trying to get away from. "Let's Not Talk About It" and "Will You Be Here Tomorrow" are beautiful in their misery, so hopefully The Mendoza Line won't turn their backs entirely on songs that are miserable. It's not such a bad thing to be known for writing sad love songs, if you can do it well.

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