The Mendoza Line

In the film Clueless, Cher Horowitz, played by Alicia Silverstone, dismisses the music loved by Josh (Paul Rudd), her stepbrother/love interest, as (I'm paraphrasing here) the sort of depressing dreck only overly sensitive collegiates could stand -- and although she didn't mention the Mendoza Line by name, it was probably an oversight on her part. But if the group, which was formed the same year Clueless came out (1995), seems on the surface to conform to every college-radio stereotype in existence (at times, its approach to pop can seem both mopey and fey), it manages to do so in an utterly winning way that frequently gives expectations a well-timed tweak.

The playfulness demonstrated by this seven-piece (Timothy Bracy, Lori Carrier, Paul Deppler, Andres Galdames, Peter Hoffman, Margaret Maurice and Shannon McArdle) is obvious even before the disc hits the player. The liner notes claim that a growing rift between the males and females in the band turned the album into a battle of the sexes: Rumours 2000, perhaps? This is a gag, of course, but it's one that pays dividends; these guys improve one song simply by calling it "Yoko's in the Band." Better titles make for better music.

Likewise, "Sasha Goes Too Far/It Could Be the Nights" uses self-awareness to leap over the traps into which many of the Line's peers tumble headlong. The song -- one of seven co-written by Bracy and Hoffman -- starts slowly, with the gentle strumming of an acoustic guitar and male-female warbling that's on the precious side. But the words ("You're a fourteen-course mess in your holiday dress") are tougher than the treatment implies, and as the story moves forward, the tempo picks up and the tone brightens until it shines. "Baby, I Know What You're Thinking" is even bouncier, with something like a rock guitar riff putting some backbone into a narrative rich with sarcasm ("I've been leaning on morals too long/And I love the way you look on my arm"). As for "I Hope to Remember to Forget," it injects lyrical venom ("Strategizing over lunch/The worst star-fucker of the bunch") into the warmest of melodies. Elliott Smith couldn't have done it better.

The four ditties penned by McArdle are more straightforward, and that's not always a good thing: She doesn't seem to mean "My Tattered Heart and Torn Parts" ironically. But she's so gol-darned sincere that lines like "If I could hold you tight/Then we could fill this world with light/And I could read 'I love you' in your eyes" (from "A Bigger City") probably won't make your teeth ache -- which is a mighty big accomplishment. Considering the existence of Jewel, that is.

Hell, if Cher Horowitz gave We're All in This Alone a chance, even she might like it


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