The Big Takeover
Issue 70 | Summer 2012
These days combining guitarcentric pop and dance music means and obnoxious blend of power chords and 5000 bpm. But not on this Texas trio’s debut LP. On “Fuzzy Light,” “Citizen,” and the irresistible “Kids in Japan,” El Cento adapts discofied postpunk rhythms to guitar pop in a way reminiscent of Talking Heads back in the 70s, grabbing your ear and your feet at the same time. Elsewhere the band adds judicious synth hooks to their guitar fills, giving “I am the Stereo” a very Cars-like flavor and “Tide In, Tide Out” an atmosphere somewhere between Japan and early ’80s King Crimson. By drawing on influences to which few others pay attention, El Cento stands out with a sound at once fresh and familiar.
Texas Music Magazine – Summer 2011
RHYTHM & NEWS – RELEASES
Don Cento could easily be described as the thinking man’s musician. He’s been involved with some of the smartest pop acts in town: He provided keys for the highly regarded alt-pop outfit Chomsky; he played guitar in the instrumental surf rock-inspired Shibboleth. He’s also produced records for the likes of Trey Johnson and he’s received his fair share of nominations for Best Instrumentalist in the Dallas Observer Music Awards, too. Now comes something somewhat different: El Cento, the band Cento formed in 2009 to showcase his own songwriting skills. With vocals drenched in the slightest bit of echo, the tracks on this Stuart Sikes-produced disc are reminiscent of The Cars and even the Talking Heads in some instances. Add to that the ever-present synthesizer and Cento’s quirky lyrics, and it becomes clear: If you mixed Chomsky and Shibboleth with Ric Ocasek, this is what you’d get. With some added quirks, of course.
There we were, on day Seventy-Nine of the Project, back yet again at Club Dada. The cover was ten bucks for three bands. Who was first to take the stage? El Cento!
Fifty or so people were watching — not bad for the opener — as frontman Don Cento, in a natty black tie on black shirt, joked from the stage during sound check. Drum and bass completed the power trio. They were wearing black too. Come to think of it, lots of bands we’ve seen this summer have worn only black. Is that this summer’s musical fashion statement? We aren’t on that mailing list.
Sounding very much like Talking Heads if they’d grown up in Dallas listening to Devo and Television, El Cento knocked song after song out of the venue. The vocals were strong and clear (again, Chris Carmichael is a sound master), the music tight. Three terrific songs in, more folks started to moving closer to the stage.
We’d seen El Cento quite some time ago, and liked them, but they were light-years ahead of that earlier show. Strong from touring, they took charge of the stage and made greatness look effortless. Don had an easy, confident rapport with the crowd; early on, he cheerfully mentioned that Beyond Thunderdome was playing on Dada’s TV, and it was switched off. He hadn’t been having a Rock Star Moment, trying to impose his will or anything like that, but it was clear that El Cento’s music was the more entertaining option.
The guys are so talented, the songs — New Wave love letters, but fresh and original, clearly from Don’s heart — are so terrific, that El Cento is definitely TV commercial-ready, major label-ready, major-tour-ready… Whatever defines success in this MP3 era, they should have lots of it.
There’s a music lover out there somewhere who’s wondering why he only likes things they don’t make any more. He’ll love El Cento.
To play devil’s advocate, we’re sure that there are some who might hear El Cento and at first flush wonder if they don’t lay on the Talking Heads fixation a bit too heavy. There are flashes of David Byrne growl-vocals, there are the same seagull-cry guitar noises that instantly recall “This Must Be the Place;” the lyrics are even influenced by that Byrne algorithm that values euphony over sense. But to that, we would reply, first, that El Cento certainly puts it own spin on its influences rather than slavishly copying them. Second, that making the music that the Talking Heads would be making if David Byrne hadn’t transcended Rock and gone on to World Art is no bad thing — indeed, it’s damned impressive and terrific fun.
In sum: New Wave pop-rock perfection. This is N’s favorite Dallas band, and given what we’ve written about Slobberbone and the O’s, that’s saying a lot. They should be huge. You should see them. You should buy the album.
Reviewers Rating: 7
Spartan rock’n’roll played by a trio that are hugely talented, dynamic, and who curtail an urge to overplay. And, yes some of their stuff is a mite quirky as they utilise space between notes in innovative fashion!
The Dallas act of Don Cento, Earl Darling and Dave Prez aided by guest musician Rich Martin (piano on three cuts) infuse a wide, eclectic feel as excellent use of synth and jangling guitars to go with percussion and drums see to it that there is a continual flow of uninhibited fare. In one quote Cento is compared, vocally to be a mix between Gordon Gano of the Violent Flammes and Terry Hall of the Specials. I can live with that. Cento’s energy and straight ahead spontaneous vocal style would have been a hit back in the late 1970s. Plus, such is his simple electric guitar work the listener can’t help but be drawn to the melodies and up-at-you sparkling lyrics.
On the occasions they vie towards electronic music, as on the closing track ‘Tide In, Tide Out’, the music possessing hints of Oriental at one point that is so neat I am about to become hooked. Even more, my idea is the opener ‘Kids In Japan’. A funky little number that blends soul, rock and some of the aforementioned fare of punk music’s heyday that stretches on through to the short and sharp playing on ‘Citizen’, then as to prove the boys can and do have the ability to implant a sensitive, cheery feel, ‘Daylight’ lends a genuine feel of how life is good and the pure magic of dawn.
Of a rock‘n’roll edge ‘I Am A Stereo’ is alive with sharp cheery lyrics and playing; likewise ‘The Book’ has lots of progression to it, alongside a quick, think-on-your-feet ‘Gitchy Young Boots’. Though less intense, ‘Such Little People’ (shades of Randy Newman in the lyrical subject, only he sang about small people), it too is part of the dynamic, creative landscape of a band who will I imagine be an ace live act.
Best of Texas
Rockin’ the Lens: El Cento in Black & White
Don Cento, who has been a go-to musician for many a north Texas-based artist for years now, along with being an integral member of noted bands such as Sibboleth just released a fine, eclectic album that seems to scratch whatever musical itch you may experience at a given moment. A recent Dallas Observer review of El Cento’s self-titled album detailed the Cars and Talking heads influences, and yes, they are there, but this isnt a retro album that merely rehashes the past, but is very vital and deserves to be heard now.
Track by Track with Paul Slavens
Art and Seek
June 13, 2011
Check the podcast as Slavens takes you track by track through the new album.
June 8, 2011
By Jessica Harm
A Nice Breather from the Hum-Drum Indie Band
Dallas trio El Cento proves that sometimes quirky, out-of-the-box music can be worth listening to. The band doesn’t pretend to have an indie/folk sound so popular in Dallas right now that tends to bring the mustachioed, plaid wearing, “I only ride my bike like everywhere” hipster out; they are the opposite. Their music is upbeat, fun, and yes – you will probably (gasp!) – dance.
Each and every song on El Cento’s 12-track self-titled debut record has an ’80s inspired retro beat that you can’t help but tap your foot to. In fact, sometimes the rhythm can be so contagious that you might find yourself dancing in your seat, or even, when the music inspires you, on your feet.
With addictive hooks like “I will be your citizen/your Thomas and your Edison/your fever and your medicine” from the track “Citizen,” it is easy to catch on to the off-the-wall lyrics. As retro as El Centro’s sound can be with synthesizers and beats reminiscent of The Cars, they are a nice breather from the hum-drum indie band.
And how does the band manage to capture their unique sound? El Cento has a few very impressive names in the music business on their side: local producer Stuart Sikes and Boston mixer Jeff Lipton. You may recognize producer Sikes’ name from Dallas band Oil Boom’s debut record, which he produced. Sikes has also worked with the White Stripes and Modest Mouse. Lipton, who mastered the album at Peerless Mastering in Boston, has worked with Arcade Fire and Spoon.
With well-seasoned music pros like that, it is no surprise that El Cento’s sound on the record is nearly flawless. This is not your average local band that records an album in the garage: They went the extra mile.
El Cento’s album is available on most digital retailers, and on June 8 at Renfield’s Corner in Dallas, the band will celebrate the release of their CD, which will have a limited edition silkscreened package.
D Magazine Blog
June 2, 2011
By Dick Sullivan
Music Review: Can El Cento’s Debut Defy the Pop Singer Age Curve?
One of the debated principles of quantum physics is that observation becomes its own variable. The very fact that we see something take place alters its taking place as if the touch of our eyes knocks things slightly off balance. Our way of seeing frames the things we see. Our way of hearing filters what arrives at our ears. We are the weary servants of our biases.
I can pretend to have received El Cento’s album with complete objectivity, but I saw the band’s photograph before I heard the album. That had me playing carnival age-guesser, trying my best to be polite about it all the while knowing the money is on my ability to guess accurately. I don’t claim to know exactly how old the three members of El Cento are – I’m only a carney, after all – but I know El Cento is not a trio of teenagers taking their first crack at making a record. It’s a moot point anyway, because I know Don Cento has spent the past decade playing music.
Before I get accused of ageism, you have to admit that songwriters, as a rule, age in dog-years. Something compelling comes out of callow youths who still have vinegar pumping in their veins. Whatever can be said for wizened philosophers and novelists, the inverse is usually true for pop music. Legends like Cash and Dylan obviously buck this trend, but I can point to just as many who lost touch as the years transpired, became riffed-out of creativity.
The self-titled, debut album from El Cento is the creative enterprise of Don Cento, who, after serving as a contributing musician in Chomsky and Shibboleth, is attempting to castle his way to frontman. El Cento forced me into two practices I normally abhor: reviewing an album about which I am not initially excited and comparing one band with another. (The latter, by the way, is the laziest form of music journalism. You should forgive no one for it; least of all me, here.)
Song order, like the age and look of a band, is another undeniable influence on how listeners process music. El Cento doesn’t really gain momentum until the sixth song. “Daylight” evokes the kind of Jimmy Buffet leisure-rock that gets vets in trouble. It is disconnected and uninspiring. But somewhere around the end of “I am the Stereo” or the beginning of “Anna Lee,” I realize that El Cento sounds hauntingly like The Cars.
I am not as opposed to artistic mimicking as you might think, particularly when it’s done well. El Cento endears themselves to me for exactly the same reasons The Cars do. It is spare pop that never gives the impression of pandering. It is clever without being pedantic. It is catchy without grounding you into irritation. Don Cento even shares something of Ric Ocasek’s unreadable expression. (Don’t get the wrong idea. I’m referring to a similarity that is more demeanor than physical. He is far from the all-ugly team Ric belongs on.)
Don Cento has made every effort to make his compositions sound polished and austere. This puritan approach to sound gives his voice ample room to move. Metaphors are liberal and made without flinching. What Cento lacks in range, he makes up for in boldness.
At its worst, El Cento’s debut suffers from the over-tinkering impulses you would expect from a veteran. At its most alluring, the album disarms you of some essential objections, which are a kind of over-tinkering in their own right. El Cento doesn’t exactly give you anything new, but it does make an admirable attempt at evading your every bias.
May 26, 2011
By Mark Schectman
Don Cento could easily be described as the thinking man’s musician. Throughout the years, he’s been involved with some of the smartest pop acts in town: He provided keys for the highly regarded alt-pop outfit Chomsky; he played guitar in the instrumental surf rock-inspired Shibboleth. He’s also produced records for the likes of Trey Johnson—on both of his most recent solo efforts, in fact. And he’s received his fair share of nominations for Best Instrumentalist in the Dallas Observer Music Awards, too.
Now comes something somewhat different: El Cento, the band Cento formed in 2009 to showcase his own songwriting skills. With vocals drenched in the slightest bit of echo, the tracks on this Stuart Sikes-produced disc are reminiscent of The Cars and even the Talking Heads in some instances. Add to that the ever-present synthesizer and Cento’s quirky lyrics, and it becomes clear: If you mixed Chomsky and Shibboleth with Ric Ocasek, this is what you’d get. With some added quirks, of course: Lead track “Citizen” boasts lyrics like, “I will be your citizen/Your Thomas and your Edison/Your fever and your medicine.” Another highlight, “I Am the Stereo,” relies on personification to describe a relationship: “You are the signal/I am the stereo/Don’t turn me down.”
El Cento proves that Don Cento is not only a talented instrumentalist, but that he also has a knack for writing quirky, smart, guitar-pop jams.
El Cento makes its proper debut
May 19, 2011
By Cole Garner Hill / Liner Notes
New York’s mix of urban renewal and decline played muse to ’70s art-punk acts such as Talking Heads and Television. In Dallas’ current identity crisis of decaying history and skyscrapers promising a bright ‘n’ shiny future, it seems only fair then that El Cento (elcento.com) arises out of the mass confusion.
Started in 2009 as an outlet for the songs of singer/guitarist Don Cento (Chomsky, Shibboleth), El Cento (also featuring drummer Earl Darling and bassist Dave Prez) has grown into a confident trio. Each song on its new self-titled debut album is a jigsaw solved by the band’s idiosyncratic, funky math of paranoia and percussive guitar-rock.
El Cento was produced and mixed by the accomplished Stuart Sikes at his studio in Oak Cliff. The album is now available for download at online stores (iTunes, Amazon, Rhapsody) as well as the band’s website, which offers bonus tracks. CDs will be available on Saturday at the Kessler, when the band opens for Bravo, Max! and the Orbans.
by Daniel Hopkins
Oct. 29 2010
Don Cento, one of the musical geniuses behind Shibolith, has branched out on his own and started El Cento, a band that he describes as “Massively Spartan Rock and Roll.” Not sure exactly what that means, but his music is reminiscent of ’70s British pop-punk acts The Jam and Elvis Costello.
My Dallas Music
by Josh Pitts
Oct. 31, 2010
El Cento closed out the night with some groovy bass lines and catchy vocal hooks. The singer/guitarist Don Cento sounded like a mix between Gordon Gano of Violent Femmes and Terry Hall of The Specials, seriously, he was that good.
Ghost of Blind Lemon
June 13, 2010
The goal of this playlist was to give exposure to unknown musicians. So here I thought I’d give some exposure to this band lead by local unknown… Don Cento??? Mr. Cento has played with Chomsky, Shibboleth, Trey Johnson’s band, and has been nominated more than once in the DOMA’s for best musician. While Mr. Cento is hardly an unknown in the local music community, this project of his has not garnered as much attention as one would expect. It’s a shame, as this track displays the intelligent brand of pop that one would expect from any project of Mr. Cento’s.
From Mr. X:
right now digging “book” real good.
we have a kindle here. it was a present to Mrs. X from someone in her family.
she’s not bonded w/ it. likes to play sudoku on it, but reading isn’t so much working for her.
i don’t think it’s alive.