Sharps & Flats

Self-conscious New York indie rockers the Mendoza Line let their youth go to waste.

By Joey Sweeney
Published August 3, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

This is the true story of seven strangers -- in fact, seven college friends from Athens, Ga. -- picked by fate to live in a house in Williamsburg, N.Y., and play in an indie rock band. After two albums and a handful of EPs and singles, the Mendoza Line moved north, cast off their old record label and decided to make the defining album of their post-undergrad lives -- to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start being real.

That album, "We're All in This Alone," reveals, if nothing else, that the seven friends in the Mendoza Line can't stand each other.

The story goes that sometime between the Mendoza Line's first album and their second, the band cast off the idea of being a happy-go-miserable, innocuous indie-pop group, and instead came up with the idea of chronicling themselves as if they were a sort of grand social experiment. It's as if they were reacting to that frozen moment when the novelty of being a band wears off, and instead, you wake up in the back of the van next to the bass player, your life now hopelessly intertwined with a bunch of incompetent losers who, normally, you wouldn't cross the street to spit on. Trouble is, the bass player thinks the same thing about you. But it's too late to stop now, because you're due in Northampton, Mass., just a few hours from now to open for the Silver Jews. Best to just get in the van and keep your mouth shut.

If that's true of the Mendoza Line -- and even the most cursory read of the band's sprawling bio and lyric sheet confirms that yes, it is -- then "We're All in This Alone" is about the festered thoughts during that long ride up I-95 set to music. There's Margaret in the shotgun seat, bleeding through her ego and impersonating Liz Phair in "Idiot Heart," on the verge of the crying jags when she sings "here on bended knee and I cannot go out in company/But I'll go down on anyone whispering love." Timothy and Peter are just fuming at what's-her-face in "Sasha Goes Too Far/It Could Be the Nights"; they can't believe how drunk she got at the dinner thing with the guy from Matador. (They go on to push her buttons by blaming her behavior on her boozy Russian ancestry.) Shannon's bummed out at her own slutty behavior in "You Singled Me Out" -- a dead ringer for the sweet folk-rock of Mary Lou Lord -- and it's all the rest of the kids can do just to keep the beat and try not to look at anyone else the wrong way.

When the sordid tale of "We're All in This Alone" is all told, you've got to hand it to the Mendoza Line for not pretending to be anything they aren't and cavalierly 'fessing up to the truths that most of their peers would be mortified to even hint at: These kids are white, middle-class schlubs, dragging their sorry asses through grad school because they don't know what else to do, gentrifying Brooklyn and grinding down on their last few sexual partners before marriage and jobs (both of which will happen completely by accident). Their youth is slipping away, and contrary to what Jonathan Richman advised kids like them, they let it go to waste.

Unless you count the rock band, which revels in the pedestrian in the same way the journal McSweeney's catalogs the mundane for loveless, luckless sport. There's more than a touch of Dave Eggers' policy of the full disclosure of nothingness in these songs, and that's only part of what makes them so universal. (That is, universal if you're an indie-rocker between the ages of 25 and, say, 28.) That the Line are able to mirror the confusion and sex in their lives with songs that are just as dense, fuzzed out and sarcastically saccharine is either a great bit of coincidence or the handiwork of unheralded sonic ironists. Either way, it hardly matters: The record rollicks along like the F train, making stops at the beery practice space, the beery loft and always, always, the beery bar. The other likable, even pitifully lovable parts stem from the honesty and self-effacement that "Alone" sings with: the self-conscious kitchen-sink rock instrumentation, the knowing nods to their own rock dreams and idols and the sincere hope that when this is all over, they can still be friends.

Joey Sweeney

Joey Sweeney is a contributing editor at Philadelphia Weekly.

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