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Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Greatest Album Ever Recorded (#1 in a series)

The Mountain Goats ~ Tallahassee

John Darnielle, who records under the name The Mountain Goats, and who also pens a blog called Last Plane to Jakarta, has been releasing his homebaked music since the early 90s. He might occupy the same zipcode as Bob Dylan: a nasal twang in his voice, but lyrics that rip through anyone that might dare to complain about his timber. And rather than obsessing on Rimbaud, Blind Willie McTell or the cultural revolution of the 60's, John Darnielle writes travelogues for exotic and mundane locations across the globe and describes the heartbreaks we might expect to encounter there.

After a long series of brilliant acoustic recordings, rough and demanding of the listener's attention, Darnielle started incorporating more complicated instrumentation and cleaner studio recording techniques to mixed results. A collaboration with Nothing Painted Blue called Martial Arts Weekend almost sounds like he's playing at being a "real" musician. The songs feel weaker than his solo material. It's nice not to hear the tape hiss from his cassette recorder anymore, but the stark emotionality that Darnielle is known for is missing from these creations. On Tallahassee however, he finds the perfect balance. The anger of his lyrics is paired with the alternately delicate and rampaging acoustic guitar, all of it perfectly propped up with bass and piano.

There are many brilliant Mountain Goats records to choose from, but this lovely 4AD release is the most consistent and engaging of his records. Its higher production values also make it more accessible to the first time listener.

The songs themselves:

1. Tallahassee - A gentle introduction. Eases you into his sensibility. Imagery pours forth as John invites you to explore his particular blend of angst and insight mouldering somewhere in the Florida heat. "Plums on the tree heavy with nectar. Prayers to summon the destroying angel. Moon stuttering in the sky like film stuck in a projector."

2. First Few Desperate Hours - The second song is a return to his trademark urgent guitar strum, but the lyrics swirl and coalesce rather than beat you over the head.

3. Southwood Plantation Road - A bouncy riff is paired with a gimpy electric guitar. "Our conversations are like minefields, no one's found a safe way through one yet."

4. Game Shows Touch our Lives - is absolutely gorgeous... building a lush atmosphere with miniature cymbal ride crescendos. Slow motion collisions of imagery and meditations on loss and failure. "People say friends don't destroy one another... what do they know about friends?"

5. The House that Dripped Blood - Sluggish acoustic and electric guitar pairing. Odd harmonica appearance. Emo-laden emphasis on the line, "The cellar door is an open throat" adds to a general macabre southern gothic feeling.

6. Idylls of the King - John puts the acoustic guitar down and comes up with a lovely delicate tune with just an electric guitar and some keyboard accompaniments. Who else can sing about "the shrieking of innumerable gibbons" and make it sound natural?

7. No Children - Shows off a true strength of the Mountain Goats... playfully urgent tunes with optimistic chords showcasing the most misanthropic lyrics you've ever heard. John giddily rejoices, "I am drowning, there is no sign of land. You are coming down with me... hand in unloveable hand. And I hope you die. I hope we both die."

8. See America Right - Copping a bit of Jonathon Richmond attitude from his Modern Lovers years. Short and in your face... drunken self-loathing... "My love is like a dark cloud full of rain that's always right there up above you."

9. Peacocks - Back to the composition style that makes track 6 so lovely... warm electric guitar nestling with some acoustic strums. Shows off an unexpected gift for melody. Dreamy macerated quality. This is the sort of tune I would compose if I had talent approaching his.

10. International Small Arms Traffic Blues - Another stand out... this all acoustic track was tapped for the soundtrack of the forth season of Weeds. No one ever compared love to "the border between Greece and Albania" so eloquently before. Achingly beautiful.

11. Have to Explode - Quiet and wistful... restraining itself on every level while promising that "something here will have to explode."

12. Old College Try - Gorgeous organ chords give body to another acoustic prayer that again heralds a crisis looming just ahead. "Things will shortly get completely out of hand. I can feel it in the rotten air tonight. In the tips of my fingers, in the skin on my face. In the weak last gasp of the evening's dying light. In the way those eyes I've always loved illuminate this place. Like a trashcan fire in a prison cell. Like the searchlights in the parking lots of hell. I will walk down to the end with you if you will come all the way down with me."

13. Oceanographer's Choice - This pivotal song fails to be as aggressive as I'd like. Here the electric guitar and synth let John down a bit. The violent imagery provides a climax to the promises of destruction laid out in the previous tracks. But instead of allowing his voice to crack and tremble and his old acoustic guitar to convey a raw power (something he did perfectly for so many years) he reins in his vocals and lets the instruments speak. It works well, but lacks some of the visceral quality that I like.

14. Alpha Rats Nest - The finale is another in his Alpha Series... tributes to a dysfunctional marriage. This provides a fitting close to the album... a return to his traditional vocal and guitar arrangement. Bright happy chords masking the bitterness of a man brutally betrayed by the promise of love. "Sing sing sing for the dying of the day. Sing for the flames that will rip through here and the smoke that will carry us away."



At 3/13/2009 09:44:00 AM, Blogger wheylona said...

Yay The Mountain Goats! I came across them a while back and have been dipping into their oeuvre in bits and bobs. And right this very moment I am listening to the very album of which you speak thanks to the awesomeness of Spotify. So far me likey. :-)

At 3/13/2009 11:02:00 AM, Blogger John said...

Had to look up Spotify after your comment Wendy. Very interesting project. Looks like it's invite only and still in Beta... and also only available in western Europe right now.

Spotify and Pandora have been known to have problems however. I've been a bit scared by the reports that Pandora banner ads were viral. And there's a recent report that Spotify had been hacked.

At 3/16/2009 05:16:00 PM, Blogger wheylona said...

Spotify *ROCKS*--I've never listened to so much new and old (and I mean old) stuff. True that there was a hack, but it's since been fixed.

Also true that it's invite only and that it's not available over US way yet (FINALLY, something very cool that I can get that you USers can't!). But maybe one day, and in the meanwhile you have Pandora (which put the kibosh on non-US folk a while back), last.fm, and I believe you can also get Deezer.com in the US...not shabby options.

While I'm here, have you heard the latest My Morning Jacket, Evil Urges? Pretty different from previous albums, and it's got a touch of Pinback about it, among other things (Prince! The Shins! Etc!). Check it, chico.


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