Posts Tagged ‘ Mountain Goats ’

The Mountain Goats – All Hail West Texas Reissue (Music Review)

All Hail West Texas cover

The Mountain Goats – All Hail West Texas

Unlike many bands, The Mountain Goats’ recent, semi-major label stuff clearly outdoes the songs from their years in indie obscurity. That makes their new reissue of All Hail West Texas fairly inessential. It’s a classic piece of Mountain Goats history, and has a couple great songs on it. But all their albums have great songs, and it’s a lot easier to find them on the more recent releases. The band hasn’t sold out, lost their focus, or run out of things to say, and John Darnielle has grown as a songwriter and performer since West Texas. The liner notes to West Texas do add some meaningful symbolism to the lo-fi recording, but still, this was sung into a boombox (not even a four-track) minutes after being written. The solo acoustic guitar is functional but little more. Even after being remastered for this release, the quality isn’t as good as the live versions that were already available on YouTube.

I don’t want to distract from the fact that this album was good enough to help launch Darnielle’s career – 4AD picked him up right after this. He has a gift for describing life for the young and marginalized (when the narrator in “Jenny” has a moment of freedom, he explains “we were the one thing in the galaxy God didn’t have His eyes on”), and really poured his soul into songs that he didn’t expect anyone else to pay attention to. This stripped-down style works best when it portrays righteous anger, as in “The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton”. But despite all that, there’s no reason to get lost in the Mountain Goats’ daunting discography until you have at least four great releases from after this point.

This reissue adds a few pages of interesting liner notes, as well as seven new tracks which weren’t preserved quite as well as the original album material. Most of those songs either sound like the lesser tracks on the album, or were never completely recorded. (The original recordings are used here, including abrupt stops when the tape runs out.) It does include one great addition to the Mountain Goats’ canon, though: “Indonesia”.

Are you a hardcore Mountain Goats fan who just happens to have a hole in your collection were All Hail West Texas should be? Then this was made just for you. Are you still a casual listener of the band? In that case, don’t worry about this yet. There’s a good chance you’ll become a hardcore fan at some point, and then this will be waiting.

Grade: C+

 
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Best Albums of 2012

2012 may or may not have been a good year for music, but it certainly wasn’t a good year for my music reviews. I covered only 55 albums, and just 21 of them were released this year. (And 17 of those 21 were reviewed this month in a frantic attempt not to let the year slip by completely.)

This makes me glad for the precedent I set last year, in which I chose my best five albums of that year, as well as five older ones that I’d finally reviewed. I spent much of 2012 catching up on a backlog, and I’m obviously going into the new year with a lot of this year’s gems still undiscovered.

I was tempted to stick to last year’s format exactly, but I’m going to cut my count down to three in each category. While there were many good albums among the ones I reviewed, there are only a few that I’d actually be confident defending on a “year’s best” list. I’d still stand up for all the ones I listed last year, and I shouldn’t confuse things this time by including ones that are merely “very good” in a year-end wrap-up. My selections may be incomplete, but at least I expect that I will look back on them at this time next year and still feel that they deserved this.

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The Mountain Goats – Transcendental Youth (Music Review)

Trancendental Youth cover

The Mountain Goats – Trancendental Youth

As a new father myself, I have a lot of respect for The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle. Transcendental Youth is his first release since the birth of his son, but he didn’t suddenly become soft and sentimental. Instead, this is a collection of honest songs about the difficulties of life, with the chance for happiness found at the end of a gauntlet. As a lesson for his child, it’s honest and refreshing, with the bit of hope it holds out being completely believable.

These songs are the most grounded in reality since The Mountain Goats’ The Sunset Tree, and while the songs aren’t all obviously about youth, the songs make sense if you imagine confused teens narrating each one. From a drug addict to a schizophrenic runaway, Darnielle narrates these without any implied judgment: These are their stories, and they don’t need some adult songwriter inserting his own judgment. And to the extent that Darnielle does have an opinion about this, his repeated theme is that everyone needs to figure out their own path: “Spent Gladiator 2”, the one song that strays slightly outside modern realism, is about bloodied gladiators and besieged villagers just trying to survive, with the obvious implication that childhood is equally epic and dangerous. (Its lyrics are echoed in the advice of “Amy (AKA Spent Gladiator 1)”, with lines such as “play with matches if you think you need to play with matches… just stay alive”.)

Musically, this is what you’d expect from a modern Mountain Goats album. Post-anti-folk, if there is such a thing, Darnielle’s voice mixes a poet’s confidence with a human’s frailty. The music is simple, but emphasizes the emotions in the songs, especially the tension and desperation. This album adds a horn section to many of the songs, which add an effective flourish when singing about the triumph of living through another day.

Transcendental Youth doesn’t have as many standout hits as recent Mountain Goats albums Heretic Pride or All Eternals Deck, but it has a clarity of vision that those ones lack. Darnielle’s son didn’t change his art, but it helped him hone the worldview he’s been describing for years. Youth is a painful struggle, but it’s worth surviving. This album captures that.

Grade: B+

 

Catch-Up Capsule Reviews: Pop

Finishing up my quick reviews of older albums, here are the “pop” ones. For me, that term still usually refers to stuff fairly outside the mainstream. If it can’t be described as rock or country, but it does fit into modern American expectations of music styles, it counts as pop. (The only possible exception would be rap/hip-hop. That hasn’t become an issue yet, because I don’t buy much of it. I will have to deal with that categorization before long, though.)

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The Mountain Goats – All Eternals Deck (Music Review)

All Eternals Deck cover

The Mountain Goats - All Eternals Deck

Ever notice that fantasy and science fiction themes are common in movies and books, but most music is strictly limited to realistic stories? What is it that gives us such different expectations in different genres? The Mountain Goats stand alone as a “serious” indie folk band that is as comfortable with monsters and cultists as with personal, realistic characters.

The trick is to treat both extremes with the same seriousness: Deep, often inscrutable lyrics and three-dimensional characters dominate all the songs. The band’s style, with simple instrumentation putting the focus on John Darnielle’s reedy but earnest voice, makes both the complex and the emotional lyrics succeed. Their latest, All Eternals Deck, is a perfect example of this. The liner notes go into detail about the apparently-fictional Tarot deck that the album takes its name from, and the songs feature vampires and cultists prominently. A first-time listener could easily assume that the entire album dealt with the magical, but in fact quite a few songs (such as the obvious “For Charles Bronson” and “Liza Forever Minnelli”) stay firmly rooted in the real world.

Of course, the stories are deep and interesting in both cases. “Prowl Great Cain” and “Sourdoire Valley Song” provide back-to-back examples, with the first examining the guilty conscience of a grave robber who betrayed a friend, and the second expressing fascination with Neanderthal culture.

“Estate Sale Sign” is arguably an improvement on Jonathan Coulton’s formula, with an intensely nostalgic look through the eyes of an aged cultist selling off his worn-out relics and sacrificial alter. “Damn These Vampires” opens the album with possibly the perfect Mountain Goats song: Featuring a narrator recently turned to vampirism, Darnielle’s voice and the building piano perfectly convey a stark, pained character with only occasional bouts of intense passion to break up a lonely, emotionless existence. But “Never Quite Free” provides a counterpoint to this, with a simple message of hope for a better life despite past tragedies.

If All Eternals Deck has a flaw, it is the inconsistent feel throughout. It’s normal for a Mountain Goats album to feature such wide variety, but so many early songs feature a sense of building doom that it is disappointing for the second half not to offer any pay-off. Despite the hints at a theme, this ends up being a standard collection of Mountain Goats songs. I don’t want to sound ungrateful about that – there are no bad songs here, and the band continues its musical growth from the early lo-fi days, but it often feels on the edge of true greatness, and this is never quite achieved.

Grade: B

The Extra Lens – Undercard (Music Review)

Undercard cover

The liner notes to Undercard cover each song with John Darnielle’s typically playful and pithy commentary. The discussion of “Cruiserweights” provides a context that I use to understand the entire album:

There are people out there who transfer footage of old fights from worn VHS to DVD, and through a couple of these people, I’ve managed to put together a small collection. Half of these fights, if I do not personally watch them, will never be remembered by anyone, anywhere, under any circumstances. There are tragic heroes, and then there are really tragic heroes, and then there are guys who, knowing that they’re never going to get rich or famous, will nevertheless consent to have most of the bones in their faces broken in front of an auditorium full of other guys who’ve paid to watch it happen.

The song makes good on this description, tenderly describing a boxer’s thoughts as he is beaten to a pulp. But almost every track on this album fits the theme described here, examining events that would be forgotten if they weren’t captured in song. From the literal (the staff in “Only Existing Footage” laboring over a movie that will never be finished) to the figurative (the immigrants of “Programmed Cell Death” furtively meeting as they watch their culture die off), from the mundane (multiple songs about affairs) to the fantastic (a family trying to forget the horror from the deep they uncover on a fishing trip), Undercard captures these quiet moments. If you doubt the value of snapshots such as these, the album closes with the narrator of “Dogs of Clinic 17”, dying of an unnamed medical experiment, reminding you “there’s a light in all of you who hear my song”.

This album itself may be one of those easily lost events. The Extra Lens released their only other album a decade ago, and that was under the name “Extra Glenns”. Undercard would receive more attention if Darnielle released it as a project of his usual band, The Mountain Goats, or if Franklin Bruno associated it with The Human Hearts. But the ephemeral nature of a side project makes these songs all the more poignant.

The songs themselves are as thoughtful and poetic as anything from The Mountain Goats. Bruno handles more complex musical arrangements than Darnielle would make on his own, but this is definitely a lo-fidelity album, more at home with the anti-folk style of The Mountain Goats than the lusher pop sounds of The Human Hearts. The result is something that feels more vital than most official Mountain Goats releases. If Undercard is both about and an example of personal, easily forgotten moments, it makes an excellent case for its own existence.

Grade: B+