The Mountain Goats
All Hail West Texas
EJ 41 CD
released Feb 2001
Full Force Galesburg
EJ 11 LP/CD
released June 1997
Nine Black Poppies
EJ 02 CDEP
released May 1996
Interview links, mp3s, show lists, every goddamned thing you could ever want to know.
He's the greatest living music writer, but look at the competition.
Remember 'audio cassettes'? Remember the days when the pre-digital Walkman was criticized as the most isolating and therefore masturbatory form of self-entertainment since the novel? Remember snickering about needing to buy 'head cleaner'? Remembering sacramentally disemboweling the "I Love You Forever: The Supermix" tape of a partner whose behavior later revealed that they were obviously disingenuous about the loving-you-forever thing? If only I had a turtleneck for every date that ended when, after showing me her new tattoo of the Chinese symbol for 'woman' that she still hid from Dad, the girl coyly asked what was in that big black trunk at the foot of my bed-- only to learn that it was full of releases from cassette-only labels. One even sneered, "I don't even know how to use a cassette," as if they were a worse misappropriation of plastic and the means of mass production than oversized "We're #1" hands for winless football teams.
As big an oddball on the underground landscape as Stephin Merritt, Mountain Goat John Darnielle understands how to harness the majesty of the practically aborted cassette format. He appeared on nearly every cassette-only label's compilation during their golden era of Xerox-ed and Crayola-ed cover art, and released his band's first three proper albums of passionate nasal-fi straight to tape. A zillion vinyl releases and ten CDs later, and the Goats have offered the world what 'they' would have us believe is the highest-profile concept album ever recorded on a jambox, complete with grinding gears that sound like Darnielle rigged a stethoscope to the saliva glands of a retired android. And despite consistently featuring more hey's, la's and whoa's than Ringo Starr's spiral lyric notebook (hanging on the wall of the Hard Rock Cafe in Bent Musket, Georgia, if you want to check it out), Darnielle's yelled lyrics continue to pierce layers of the listener's inner ice. Foes of profane merriment beware: the chorus of "Jenny" employs a "hi-diddle-dee-dee-goddamn." Who else could, with only an abused acoustic guitar accompanying him, pull off a line as prosaic as, "We tried to fight the creeping sense of dread with temporal things"?
The songs here that aren't sagas of wayward youths chronicle the trajectories of various loves, from courtship, to feeding fruit to each other, to divorce and/or death, and sometimes even to hell. Which brings up "The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton," and its bold invocation of the Prince of Darkness: the marginalization of God cost rock one of its central components, which Darnielle resurrects with his emphatic envoy, "Hail Satan!" Though Darnielle palpably dissed Glenn Danzig in a recent issue of his zine Last Plane to Jakarta, moments like the chanting of "Hail Satan," that blend earnestness with clever condescension, provide clues to how Darnielle does his thing. He plays with tone, dipping sophistication in the muck of primitivity, sampling bits of Emily Dickinson, T.S. Eliot, and Philip Larkin in his home-taped, sentimental wimp-rock, involving just enough brain food to prevent that Scorsese-bred part of me from suggesting, "Ayy! I got some Clorox that'll get that heart off your sleeve."
Add "The Mess Inside," with its urgent account of a love that even a September jaunt to New York can't save, to the exponentially multiplying list of songs accidentally weighted with post-boxcutter connotations of homeland insecurity (as well as the lines in "Pink and Blue" about Oklahoman wind smelling like blood and smoke). After producing dozens of songs obsessed with mobility (the "Going To ________" songs), Darnielle's last three albums have been settled in one geographic region, hinting at a fusty patience or new maturity. Would you believe that "Blues In Dallas," a Hamlet-assed song with a tinny keyboard backup and JFK underpinnings, is about something as unsexy as deciding to wait, and is also really, really good?
Darnielle's craft can convince you to follow his classist/nostalgic aesthetic logic: this album would sound perfect on the one-speaker radio atop a custodian's pushcart. You'll start asking, how can there be a sport so colonial that it requires as much cultivated land as golf does? Since so little gets reported anyway, what justifies the competing 24-hour news channels? Didn't 'analog' movie monsters at least take up three-dimensional space on the film, unlike the computer phantoms of Jurassic Park that leave actors running from thin air? Does every disc in my collection really have to be a performance test that justifies my investment in all of that stereo componentry?
At least two songs on All Hail West Texas flagrantly bemoan the state-of-the-art burden of uncurbed, soul-charring consumption. But whether you embrace the hiss and crackle or not, Darnielle seems to be, like the poets he cites, settled in his spot on the fringe. Rating: 8.2 (William Bower, Pitchfork)
Solitary singers wielding acoustic guitars are the musical equivalent of a glass of water. It's a means of expression that boasts more than its share of boring, flavorless, transparent hacks, and while there's bound to be the occasional draught of earthy, lukewarm sludge, it's hard to get passionate about disliking all but the most inane troubadour. Every now and then, however, a refreshing wellspring of talent emerges, like a Bob Dylan or a Woody Guthrie.
While John Darnielle, aka The Mountain Goats, occupies a plane somewhat below Dylan and Guthrie's, his recent concept album, All Hail West Texas, is a low-tech, long-on-intellect remedy for overproduced, dumbed-down sugar pop as well as intricately arranged, multi-instrumental art-rock. Sometimes a glass of water is all that will do.
Described by its album cover as "fourteen songs about seven people, two houses, a motorcycle, and a locked treatment facility for adolescent boys," All Hail West Texas sticks to the Goats' recent formula: The whole thing's recorded on a boombox so rundown its gears grind audibly in the background, harmlessly marking time the way the yellow dotted line on the highway gives the impression of distance traveled without destroying the view.
As for the music accompanying the gears, West Texas keeps it simple. With the exception of "Blues in Dallas," which features a drum machine and a cheap keyboard, the instrumentation is acoustic guitar and voice. Darnielle will never be mistaken for a guitar god, though his playing is competent enough. The same can be said for his nasal, off-kilter singing.
Not surprisingly, the emphasis of Darnielle's music is on what he's singing, not how it's delivered. And All Hail West Texas teems with rich, intelligent lyricism. The album's seemingly unrelated characters have little in common other than geography, yet the album possesses an American everymanism that makes them easy to relate to. Everyone knows teenagers like those in "The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton," who "never settled on a name/ But the top three contenders/ after weeks of debate/ were Satan's Fingers/ The Killers/ and The Hospital Bombers."
Even the tried-and-true use of a crumbling physical structure as a metaphor for emotional unraveling is employed to brilliant effect in "Fault Lines:" "It's gone on like this/ for three years I guess/ and we're drunk all the time/and our lives are a mess/ And the deathless love we swore to protect with our bodies/ is stumbling across its bleak ending/ But none of the rage in our eyes/ seems to finish it off where it lies/ I've got sugar in the fuel lines/ Both of us do."
Like a talented poet or prose writer, Darnielle uses vivid, situation-specific lyrics to speak to universal American experiences. Not everyone will be familiar with "Source Decay's" "drive two hours east to check the Austin post office box." But anyone who's driven through, grown up in or done time in rural America can appreciate the next stanza's brilliantly rhymed "all the Chevy Impalas in their front yards up on blocks." When Darnielle hits his stride, as he does on 10 or 11 of All Hail West Texas' 14 songs, he wields the power to produce laughter in his listeners' throats, or tears in their eyes. (Eric Wittmershaus, Flak Magazine)
There's something to be said for perseverance. For the better part of the last 10 years, John Darnielle, AKA The Mountain Goats (yes, we know, there's only one of him, but somehow "The Mountain Goat" just doesn't sound quite right) has been churning out brilliant lo-fi gems whose main features have been his hallucinatory, erudite lyrics, his bleating voice, and his primitive bashing on an acoustic guitar. Oh yeah, and the boombox. Or, to be more specific, the Panasonic RX-FT500, which, for several years, was the sole piece of equipment that Darnielle used to transfer his songs to tape. If you consider four-track, or even eight-track recordings to be a little low on production values for your taste, then you'd do well to stop reading now, because after a four-year hiatus wherein it was presumed that the Panasonic had breathed its last, thetrusty machine has miraculously revived itself just in time for Darnielle to record 14 more brilliant lo-fi gems into it.
Darnielle's last few records (last year's The Coroner's Gambit in particular) saw him edging almost imperceptibly towards slightly higher fidelity recordings -- hell, some of Gambit was even recorded on an eight-track! All Hail West Texas is, however, in Darnielle's own words, "the sound of a long-broken machine deciding, on its own and without the interference of repairmen or excessive prayer vigils, to function again". So, there you have it. The boombox is dead, long live the boombox. He goes on to admit that the resultant sound is "painfully raw". That about hits the nail on the head. In fact, the first sound that the listener is confronted with on popping West Texas into the player is not Darnielle's voice or guitar, but the sound of the gears of the tape machine, which invariably get picked up by the boombox's extremely sensitive condenser mic. This wheel grind begins and ends every song, and no effort whatsoever is made to mask it. In fact, at the end of many songs, the tape noise is actually allowed to whirr on unaccompanied for a few seconds before it's faded out. Darnielle states that the boombox can be "legitimately thought of as a second performer on these otherwise unaccompanied recordings", and in a sense, he's right. Although it only knows how to play one note, the good ol' Panasonic certainly contributes a great deal of ambience to these songs.
From the above description, you might legitimately think that listening to All Hail West Texas is a rather painful experience. If you've heard any other Mountain Goats releases, you probably already know that this is not the case at all. If you're a Mountain Goats newbie, read on, and allow me to explain. See, John Darnielle is nothing if not one of our nation's finest songwriters. While at times, his songs can come across more like tiny short stories or vignettes rather than songs in the traditional sense, he never fails to imbue the characters in his songs with an amazing amount of humanity. He has always been a master at reducing banal lives and situations to sublime epiphanies, and nowhere is this more true than on All Hail West Texas. Although he has strung conceptual threads throughout many of his songs and albums (see the "Orange Ball of . . ." or the "Going to . . ." series of songs), this is the first time that Darnielle has sat down and deliberately written a concept album.
As it plainly states on the CD's cover, All Hail West Texas is "14 songs about seven people, two houses, a motorcycle, and a locked treatment facility for adolescent boys". These people range from Cyrus and Jeff, the two dirtbags who comprise "The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton", to William Standeforth Donahue, the star of "Fall of the Star High School Running Back". Basically, these are people with little hope in their lives, little to motivate them, little to live for. However, for some reason, God knows why, they keep on plodding along in their vain attempts to better their situations, and this, seemingly, is what Darnielle is fascinated with. What makes these folks tick? Why do they do what they do? Why do they make the mistakes that they make? In a way, some of these songs resemble psychological case studies set to music, and as such, are as endlessly fascinating as leafing through the confidential files of your next-door neighbor's troubled teen might be. Voyeuristic? Perhaps, but who doesn't crave a little peek into the dark side of human nature now and then? Perhaps I'm being a bit sensationalist, because there's really nothing here that would be considered worthy material for the tabloid pages; merely the details of exceedingly average people and their problems that they face in trying to cope with their lives.
In describing these people, Darnielle is about as matter-of-fact, non-ironic and non-judgmental as possible, considering the fact that he is an educated, extremely intelligent man writing songs about and from the perspective of unintelligent, uneducated people. The effect is very interesting, especially when Darnielle speaks in the first person, as on "Riches and Wonders", where he sings "We live high, our love gorges on the alcohol we feed it / And it grows all fat and friendly, we have surplus if we need it . . . I am healthy, I am whole / But I have poor impulse control". It's almost as if, through Darnielle's pen, a loutish West Texas man is suddenly given extreme insight into his own life and situation. Elsewhere, in "Fall of the Star High School Running Back", Darnielle tackles the potentially cringeworthy topic of a star high school football player who blows out his knee, and is therefore no longer able to play, turns to selling drugs, and inevitably gets busted. However, Darnielle tackles this topic with more grace than anyone could reasonably expect possible when he sings "Selling acid was a bad idea / Selling it to a cop was a worse one / A new law said that 17-year-olds could do federal time / You were the first one / So I sing this song for you / William Standeforth Donahue / Your grandfather rode the boat over from Ireland / But you made a bad decision or two". It's also a testament to his amazing songwriting skills that he can fit the above rather wordy couplets into a song without the result sounding tremendously awkward. For those of you who have grown fond of Darnielle's ability to paint amazing imagistic miniatures within his songs, never fear, he has not abandoned this gift. Although his character sketches often take precedence, a line like "The crows discussed their future / In the branches of their Louisiana live oak", from "Pink and Blue", is but one example of Darnielle's ability to instantaneously burn pictures into your brain with his words.
There are a few times on the record, however, where Darnielle reaches slightly beyond his grasp and ends up sounding terminally, hopelessly dorky. For me, this comes mainly with "Jenny", which is not, as the title might imply, an ode to a girl, but rather to a new, fresh-from-the-showroom yellow and black Kawasaki motorcycle. When he sings "900 cubic centimeters of raw whining power / No outstanding warrants for my arrest / Hi diddle dee dee/Goddamn / The pirate's life for me" in his high reedy tenor, it's really almost too much to take. And yes, you did read that right, he actually sings "Hi diddle dee dee" within the context of a pop song. Needless to say, it doesn't exactly "work". Elsewhere, on the opening song "The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton", which is, for the most part, a rather humorous take on two scummy teenagers, Cyrus and Jeff, who "practice twice a week in Jeff's bedroom", and couldn't ever come up with a name for their enterprise, "but the top three contenders, after weeks of debate/Were Satan's Fingers, The Killers and The Hospital Bombers". However, it's the end of the song where it all comes unraveled, with a chant of "Hail Satan / Hail Satan tonight". I suppose it's intended as realism, but coming out of Darnielle's mouth, it just plain sounds silly.
However, these slight missteps are easily forgiven in the context of what might be, song-for-song, the best album of his career. While previous records have sported highlights that shone brighter than any one song on West Texas, as a whole, this is by far his most consistent album. Although it takes a step back in fidelity which may not be welcome to many ears after the relatively pristine-sounding The Coroner's Gambit, it's absolutely worth slogging through the "ferocious wheel grind" of the Panasonic RX FT-500 to get at the meat of these amazing songs. In the last verse of "The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton" (before the "Hail Satan" bit, that is), Darnielle sings a verse that, to me, seems emblematic of this whole record. "When you punish a person for dreaming his dream/Don't expect him to thank or forgive you/The best ever death metal band out of Denton/Will in time both outpace and outlive you". As the cockroach will inevitably outlive the man, those of us who consider ourselves intelligent purveyors of art and culture need must understand that it's the salt of the earth that wins out in the end. (Jeremy Schneyer, PopMatters)
This man beats his guitar like it owes the mob money. Mountain Goats is not actually a collective of Siberian Bovines, it's one man named John Darnielle. On a Panasonic RX-FT500, he writes the best acoustic pop songs you could ever ask for.
The lyrics range from death metal bands and running backs, to heartache and Scandinavia. The songs are simple, beautiful, and amazing. The low-fi quality of the recording only adds to the charm, and the presence is unrivaled.
This album has a lot of things going for it in my mind . . . First, I have a thing for goats, as anyone on the messageboard can attest to.Ê Second, he writes songs about death metal, I love death metal. Third, he has a sense of humor, which is rare in music today.
If you are a fan of Noise Addict or the White Stripes, I would say that this album is right up your alley. (David Repeat, Hand Carved Magazine)
John Darnielle recorded most of his latest album, All Hail West Texas, on a small Panasonic boombox with built-in microphone that he bought at a Circuit City in Montclair, Calif., in "1989 or '90" for less than $50. And if that scares you, let me tell you you've got nothing to be scared about. It sounds just fine. In fact, it sounds fantastic. John's album that is.
You could say Ñ and you would not be wrong Ñ that I'm not the most unbiased fellow around when it comes to John Darnielle (who releases albums under the name "The Mountain Goats"). I have written, not so long ago (last June, to be exact), that he is "one of the best rock critics in the world." And that wasn't the end of it. I actually went on to say that John was even better than that.
Anyway, now I must tell you that having spent some time today with All Hail West Texas (and, fairly recently, with The Extra Glenns' very fine album Martial Arts Weekend, John's collaboration with Frank Bruno), that John also makes damn good albums. Great albums. All Hail West Texas is full of moving, funny, emotional, serious, real music. Your heart just might break, listening to some of these songs.
You could say that perhaps I have a vested interest in John, since he occasionally writes album reviews and other things for Neumu. So I want to get that out of the way right now. If I didn't really dig John's album, I just wouldn't write about it. I find it almost impossible these days to write about anything that doesn't move me in some way.
John first came to my attention when a mutual friend suggested that John just might be interested in writing some album reviews for Neumu. Turned out he was interested. And when I read a few of his published pieces, I was knocked out. I've read rock criticism for a long, long time, and I was blown away by John's writing, which was personal, amusing, took unexpected turns, and always hit the bulls-eye of whatever he was writing about.
Thus it's not so surprising that if I dug John's writing, I would also be taken by his songwriting. Turns out he's got one of those distinctive, idiosyncratic voices that sound like no one else. He's a "singer" in the same way that Bob Dylan or Paul Westerberg or Loudon Wainwright III is Ñ the impression you get is that this is a real guy, singing the songs. No bullshit.
If John were U2, and the record company guys were sitting around trying to figure out the first single, they'd for sure come up with "The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton" Ñ one of the best song titles in ages, of course, but also a really catchy song. I mean, Blink 182 could probably power-punk it into a hit. Well, except for that chorus, which likely wouldn't go over big on the Clear Channel stations. But we'll come back to that later.
You may feel like crying listening to "Color in Your Cheeks." I think it's about people coming to America, but I don't know. It's really more about how John sings the words. Part of one verse goes like this: "They came in by the dozens, walking and crawling/ Some were bright-eyed, some were dead on their feet... / When they finally made it here/ It was the least that we could do/ To make our welcome clear." And then he moves into the chorus, singing it in such a gracious way: "Come on in/ We haven't slept for weeks/ Drink some of this/ This will put color in your cheeks." Then he just plays the chord progression a few times.
You could listen to "Color in Your Cheeks" for days and not have it all figured out. You could lay your own interpretations on it. You could just dig the way John sings his words. Or just dig the words, the way they sound, the way they rhyme. Or the music, the imperfect way John plays the chords, and the mood those chords cast on you. "Come on in/ We haven't slept for weeks/ Drink some of this/ This will put color in your cheeks." Wow!
So there you have it. Lo-fi. Unique voice that is about as far from slick as you can get. Rough guitar playing. Amazing lyrics. Amazing melodies. And so intense. Probably one of the ten best albums that will be released this year. Maybe top five.
But back to "The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton," which is in part about Cyrus, who dreams of stardom for his band, and instead gets sent to "the school where they told him he'd never be famous." The final verse goes like this: "When you punish a person for dreaming his dream/ Don't expect him to thank or forgive you/ The best ever death metal band out of Denton will, in time, both outpace and outlive you." And about that chorus. It goes like this: "Hail Satan! Hail Satan, tonight. Hail Satan. Hail Hail." (Michael Goldberg, Neumu)
When John Darnielle wants to record an album as The Mountain Goats, he simply sits down with his guitar, a batch of simple folk tunes, and a trusty 12 year-old boombox. As Darnielle writes in the liner notes, the rhythmic clicking and hiss from his broken Panasonic tape deck is the second performer, providing low background clatter on these barebones acoustic tunes.
As always, the music is spare, leaving the focus entirely on Darnielle's literary lyrics. Whether he's being funny, depressing, nostalgic, joyous, romantic -- or all of them at once -- he can be counted on for a clever turn of phrase or an insightful comment.
"Color in Your Cheeks" pairs a stuttery guitar with lyrics about a town that accepts the world's outcasts. "Fall of the Star High School Running Back" has some more great couplets, like, "selling acid was a bad idea/ and selling it to a cop was a worse one."
These 14 songs continue in the fine Mountain Goats tradition. Darnielle fans will be completely unsurprised to find that the music is still just as crude, and the lyrics just as beautiful. (Ed Howard, Cornell Daily Sun)
The Mountain Goats is John Darnielle. He records himself playing acoustic guitar and singing on a ten year old boombox. He also refers to The Mountain Goats as "we" even though (at least on this record) he performs totally solo. Perhaps he's speaking metaphorically of himself and the characters which inhabit his songs. Perhaps its just a bit of (wink - wink) pretension.
Crappy sounding, solo, home recordings always bring up the slighly bitter taste of Lou Barlow circa 1991-92. It was great and neat at the time but those records rarely get listened to these days. Luckily, Darnielle sidesteps those stigmas by the simple fact that his songs tell great stories instead of wondering about in a self-involved stupor (though on a few he get perilously close.)
The music is folky, strummed acoutic guitar with earnest vocals. But where the Mountain Goats really shine is the lyrics. They're very witty and smart but not in a Pavement type way. There is a point to these words (unlike Malkmus and co.)
A great example is the opening song, "The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton." While title may strike a funny chord, the actual song is a sad tale of two friends since grade school who start a bedroom metal band. When, after a struggle, they finally arrive at a name, they stencil it all over "in a script that made prominent use of a pentagram." One of them gets sent to a reform school while they both plot revenge, "when you punish a person for dreaming his dream, don't expect him to thank or forgive you. The best ever death metal band out of Denton will in time both out pace and out live you. Hail Satan!" This is the story of the guys everyone knew in high school; the stoner geeks who lived in their own world, except that its told from their point of view this time. Heck, Darnielle gives special thanks in the credits to "young men and women in bedrooms with electric guitars and Morbid Angel T-shirts all around the country. The Future is yours." Big kudos to John Darnielle for taking the irony out of the current fad of digging metal.
The second song, "Fall of the Star High School Running back," runs along the same lines. It tells the story of a football star who "averaged 8 1/3 yards per carry" and whose high school sports career was ended by an injury his junior year. After the injury he makes some mistakes, "selling acid was a bad idea, selling it to a cop was a worse one."
All Hail West Texas is packed with little snippets of people's lives. While the constant noise of the lowest of lo-fi recording techniques can at some points distract, the songs carry through. "Blues in Dallas" even gives us a slight break from the boy+acoustic-guitar set up when the instrument changes to a casio-type keyboard complete with the bleep and bloop drum beat. Who'd have known all it takes to extend the life of a style thought (or wished) dead a while back was some who could write actual songs and tell real stories. (Dave Morgan , naughtysecretaryclub.com)
Obligatory, but necessary background info about The Mountain Goats, in one big gushing paragraph (those who know may skip to the review):
The Mountain Goats are John Darnielle and his acoustic guitar, sometimes joined by friends, but mostly not. Darnielle has a rather tinny timbre to his voice. Literary quotes from the like of Eugene O'Neil populate his liner notes, with songs that are simple in their vocabulary, but rich in detail and keenly astute in their observations. Darnielle sometimes plays rock critic, and has a known fondness for Death Metal of the Morbid Angel variety. The Mountain Goats music sounds nothing like Death Metal. For a long time this music was recorded simply on a Panasonic RX-FT500 boombox with the tape spinning mechanism placed too close to the extra sensitive condenser microphone, lending a unique whir to the background hum of the recordings. A few years ago the boombox ceased to function, then last year suddenly sprang back to life.
All Hail West Texas is an album that celebrates the revival of John Darnielle's Panasonic boombox through a miraculous and mysterious rebirth. As per usual for The Mountain Goats, the lead off track of this album is an absolute stunner. "The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Dayton," leads off with a mid-tempo strum and tells the tale of Cyrus and Jeff who write macabre songs on electric guitar in a bedroom, while dreaming of the big time. Logos are designed and dreams are dreamt until Cyrus get sent off to a reform school, and the whole thing winds up with a rousing chorus of "Hail Satan!" --- not for comedic affect, but rather with true appreciation of the tale's subjects. Darnielle has mostly lost his over the top vocal volume sometimes present on previous efforts, but the understated effect here, and elsewhere on the record is quite welcome.
"Fall of the Star High School Running Back" follows, telling the tale of a young man caught selling drugs, and caught also in the system of zero tolerance. Darnielle's eye is always on detail, and he manages to create such concrete images with the greatest economy of words, and his storytelling penchant is only matched by his ability to set it to a simple, rock solid melody. "Pink and Blue" is an incredibly beautiful and delicate number that anchors down the central portion of the album, and serves as a high point overall. "What will I do with you?/Pink and blue/True gold/Nine days old" Darnielle intones in one of the albums most achingly memorable melodies. The tale is another one of a small town, this time with the focus on a destitute new parent. No answer to the question is given, leaving a sense of true desperation in the face of the unknown hanging in the air.
As with most prolific artists, Darnielle has had some spotty efforts in the past, but All Hail . . . is a consistently high quality affair that does not disappoint. (Todd Hanssen, Altar Native)
Some songs work once or twice and wear off; others draw you in deeper each time you hear them. John Darnielle, who records as the Mountain Goats, has written a couple of songs that are at once funny and moving, and they wind up on a lot of mix tapes. So people have come to think of him as the guy who wrote "Cubs in Five," a song that's never quite as great as it is the first time you hear it. But Darnielle spends more of his time writing ruthlessly spare songs about plants, weather, and the flaws in the human heart, songs possessed of a mystery that's seemingly bottomless.
Eight of the 14 songs on the Mountain Goats' new CD, All Hail West Texas, mention the weather. Six mention plants, and all but one offer nothing more than Darnielle's patrician voice and acoustic guitar. His enunciation and timing are impeccable; his voice turns nasal whenever he pushes. His right hand hacks away at his guitar like he's trying to chop it down. The album was recorded on two over-the-counter boom boxes, one of which dates back to 1989 and contributes what the liner notes describe as "some pretty ferocious wheel-grind." The claustrophobic sound chokes the air from the room; we can hear how desperate things really are.
Darnielle's characters are desperate, no question. Most of All Hail West Texas traces love affairs that outstay their welcome. In "Jenny" the lovers ride off into the sunset, but that's the beginning of the story, not the end; their problems are just starting. Each song offers a fragment of troubled history, allowing us to see the couple whole for an instant.
In "Pink and Blue" a man feeds his infant twins and thinks, "What will I do with you?" We don't know exactly why he's worried, but there are crows outside in the branches of a tree whose "roots reach down to where the bad people go." Something is terribly wrong beneath the surface, something that he can ignore most of the time, but not when he's mashing up bananas for his babies. It's a pop song that feels like a documentary. The lyrics are microscopically dense: sensory details pile up much faster than you can take them in, just like in real life. When you listen, you hear the sound of a single event: Darnielle hits record, plays the song, botches a few notes on the guitar. The wheels of the boom box churn away in the background like an approaching storm.
The whir of the tape recorder and the scratching of the pick against the strings are to Darnielle's voice what the weather and the landscape are to his characters: cold, hard, uncontrollable facts of the universe. Across several dozen releases (cassettes, 7-inches, compilation appearances Darnielle's career is an obsessive record-collector's wet dream) those facts have been near-Newtonian constants. What happens when they're gone? (Gabriel Roth, San Francisco Bay Guardian)
"The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton" just might be the best ever tribute to death metal on record.
The song, the first on the Mountain Goats' new All Hail West Texas, is in many ways just like all of Mountain Goat John Darnielle's recorded output: strummed acoustic guitar recorded into a hissing, rattling Panasonic cassette deck.
But the very audible wheel grinding from inside the Panasonic combines with Darnielle's reverent love for the hair bands of his adolescence to take the track to celestial heights.
If Bruce Springsteen were hip, didn't have a backing band and bellowed "Hail Satan" at the end of songs with the guttural might of a television evangelist, "The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton" is what he'd produce.
Darnielle's Mountain Goats recordings don't explicitly sound like Springsteen, but it shares the narrative style and reverence for blue-collar life found in Springsteen's early work. In fact, "Death Metal Band" even sounds a bit like "Born to Run," and its tale of three suburban kids thirsting for fame evokes how Springsteen used to pen.
The rest of All Hail West Texas lives up to its opener's promise. The detailing of the girl in "Color In Your Cheeks" is as vivid as Bob Dylan's lyrics on "Visions of Johanna." The entire album is a perfect snapshot of suburbia. Darnielle can paint pictures with words as well as anyone, and All Hail West Texas is proof. (Justin Stranzl, Penn State Collegian)
I can summarize everything I know about West Texas in one sentence: I-40 spans about 200 miles of it, one of its major cities is Amarillo, it's moderately populated, and it's relatively undistinguished, even for the Midwest. I know these things because it just so happens I've driven through there three times in the past two years as part of my semiannual collegiate commute between California and North Carolina. But despite perhaps having more knowledge of West Texas than the average Mountain Goats reviewer, my memory and general opinion of the area have been dulled by the crusty-eyed, detached world view that characterizes transnational car travel.
Consequently, I have very little of interest to say about West Texas; however, chief (and incidentally, only) Mountain Goat John Darnielle apparently found enough inspiration there for fourteen tracks of lo-fi literary melancholy.
Just as the naked eye indicates there's not much in West Texas, All Hail West Texas at first listen sounds bare and insubstantial, not to mention primitively recorded. Sure, we all know what lo-fi sounds like, but you (the average soundcard-equipped reader) wouldn't need Steve Albini to trump Darnielle and his K-Mart boombox in the production department. In theory, anyone could do what Darnielle does given his setup: his acoustic guitar progressions, while affecting, require only a basic knowledge of chords to play; his voice is untrained, nasal and only marginally tuneful; and as for the omnipresent tape hum. . . well, that's as easy as not using the proper bandpass filter. But the lo-fi aesthetic suits the Mountain Goats particularly well, as its minimalism and lack of polish create the perfect backdrop for Darnielle's stark tales of small-town tragedy and disappointment.
Yep, the lyrics basically make this record. Darnielle shatters any question as to how his Mountain Goats differ from your friend with the acoustic and the average voice with his incredibly poignant and memorable portraits of podunkers in dire straits. From the pair of Slayer wannabes of "The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton" to the promising jock turned drug dealer in "Fall of the Star High School Running Back", his protagonists all seem doomed to soul-crushing ennui at best and jail/death at worst. Even the obviously well-off materialists of "Fault Lines" fall prey to the spiritual bankruptcy of compulsive consumption, proving that not even money can buy salvation from the unrelentingly bleak purgatory known as West Texas.
Okay, so far, so good. Moving tunes, exemplary lyrics, an effective delivery all around. . . so why not a higher rating? Well, to be honest, assimilating this entire record all at once doesn't seem to be the best way to enjoy it. The lack of sonic variety prevents most of the songs from making much of an impression musically, and in general lo-fi really starts to grate after about 20 straight minutes. Additionally, far more than other bands, the Mountain Goats demand so much of your attention that a 10-second lapse at a critical point in the song (or even an extended pause) can defeat its purpose. And of course, there's the minor quibble that I personally have more respect for Darnielle's ilk than love; I can appreciate his craft and laud his talent but I don't see myself ever approaching a record like this on my own. But if you get off on the literate singer-songwriterisms of Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen and the Silver Jews, you'll likely find a little more to enjoy in West Texas than I did. (Deen Freelon, Stylus Magazine)
The Mountain Goats are a one-man band, masterminded by indie mainstay John Darnielle. Though Darnielle's buddies occasionally widen their sound, two constants have remained with the Mountain Goats since their inception. The first is that Darnielle will be playing his guitar and singing the songs. The second is that the band will record on a ghetto blaster purchased at a department store. Both of these charming qualities have been ubiquitous on Mountain Goats records, and they are equally responsible for the Mountain Goats' sound.
On All Hail West Texas, we again find Darnielle singing narratives and spinning yarns, this time with the loose theme that all of the songs are set in West Texas. Darnielle creates some memorable characters, from the football player who ends up in prison after selling acid to cops on "Fall of the Star High School Running Back," to the rowdy kids that comprise "The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton." His characters run the emotional spectrum from joy to sorrow, and make stops in between at destinations many talented songwriters neglect. Another highlight of the album is "Riches and Wonders," a song that finds its narrator very much in love and content with life. "Blues in Dallas" features a drum machine and synth, and it is the lone track that deviates from the guitar and vox arrangement. Darnielle feels no need to show off with fancy strummin' or arcane chords, rather he finds sincerity and metaphor to be his most effective weapons. In this respect, the Mountain Goats are most reminiscent of Loudon Wainwright III in song structure and vocal delivery.
All Hail West Texas is a low fidelity revelation for listeners looking for great songwriting and stories. The experience of listening to the album is akin to being pleasantly surprised by the songs of a busker or coffee shop artist. The band exudes a warmth that is equal parts Darnielle and tape hiss. (Andy Cockle, Dusted Mag)
Presently Stuck: The Mountain Goats Ð "The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton"
Hail Satan. Yes, lets. Quite.
I've gone on about Mr. Darnielle enough, probably, but Christ. All Hail West Texas is clearly going to be the best album of the year. Others will be drawn to flashier product, of course, but they are wrong. There are, of course, no terrible Mountain Goats albums, but All Hail West Texas is I think the first Mountain Goats album to be completely, unambigiously great. Every song on this album could make a hardened, atavistic, sociopathic, just-plain-dead-inside criminal collapse into a mushy, weepy pile.
But the thing that I really love about this song in particular is the bit about Satan. I have a thing for songs that make evil seem sympathetic and melancholy. Like, say, "Evil" by the Red House Painters, or "Evil Will Prevail" by The Flaming Lips, or even "Evil Shadow" by Thingy. When evil is sad and bittersweet, well, that's what your standard undergraduate critical thinking TA would call an 'interesting trope.' I call it bad-ass. (Zach, Soft Music for Stupid People)
The first thing to notice about Full Force Galesburg is that it has no "Going to..." songs. Such songs had been a Mountain Goats staple up until now; the track listing of last year's Nothing For Juice included "Going To Bogota," Kansas, Rekjavik, Scotland, and even Catalina. The songs on the new album are mostly about being there already: "Evening In Stalingrad," for example, and "It's All Here In Brownsville." This is especially curious given how much travelling singer/songwriter John Darnielle has done lately: he notes that the album was recorded in Iowa, California, and New Zealand. Not to read too much into it, but maybe Darnielle is acknowledging in those titles that he's in danger of running out of places to go. Like most previous Mountain Goats songs, each song on Galesburg is a site-specific reverie that pieces together a bit of scenery, a message, a man's expression, a woman's voice, all to encapsulate some moment of great love, or doubt, or of being overcome, that is as unique as the chord progressions are repetitive. Darnielle's world is one of a million isolated precincts whose borders never touch. Still, listening to his stories makes it seem unlikely that he will ever run out of space to fill. "I thought I knew what my weaknesses were, anyway/And then the orange tree blossomed last Saturday," Darnielle sings on "Ontario." His talent lies in giving us a taste of that feeling, without diminishing its distance. (CMJ)
Full Force Galesburg is the Mountain Goats' fourth full length album and is in my opinion a culmination of all the various EP's and seven inches and compilations that came before it. In this album John Darnielle (more or less the Mountain Goats by himself now) has found a new confidence and serenity. Gone are the "Standard Bitter Love Songs" and the mockingly escapist "Going to" songs, for the Mountain Goats have now arrived, and reached, as it were, their maturity. The wheel grind of the same cheap boombox with which the quintessentially lo-fi Mountain Goats have been recording at home for six years is still here on solo works such as "Ontario" and "Minnesota." There are still the frenetic acoustic guitar marathons exhibited in songs such as "West County Dream." And you won't find a song that doesn't grab you with the Mountain Goats' unparalleled lyric genius, exploring the fictionalized dramas and monologues invented by the breadth of one man's mind. But unique to this album, and characteristic of it are hauntingly beautiful studio works including "Evening in Stalingrad" and "Snow Owl" and "Weekend in Western Illinois" featuring guest artists Peter Hughes (of Diskothi-Q and Nothing Painted Blue) and New Zealand's Alastair Galbraith. "Weekend in Western Illinois" and "Twin Human Highway Flares" in particular exemplify the swelling theme present throughout the album, of life as a whole, its joy and sorrow and the emotional intertwinings that make it all possible, particularly within the innocence of the American midwest. "Full Force Galesburg" is an important work. Featuring sixteen songs of timeless musical storytelling, this is easily the best album of the year thus far. Highly, emphatically recommended. (jonathan maier, Ultra)
Galesburg, IL, is the hometown of Carl Sandburg, the American poet who reveled in things and persons ordinary. Similarly, Mountain Goats main man John Darnielle has spent the last few years amassing a body of songs reminiscent of Sandburg's poetry, celebrating geography, travel and the majestic beauty of the mundane.
On Full Force Galesburg, the Mountain Goats' fifth official full-length, Darnielle has finally decided to go solo. Though past releases have featured a revolving cast of players, the new one is just Darnielle and his acoustic guitar (with occasional appearances by New Zealander Alastair Galbraith).
While travel has been a primary focus of Mountain Goats records, it's never been as focused as on this song-cycle travelogue Ñ inspired, one might deduce, by Darnielle's lengthy American tour last year.
Galesburg follows a route which starts off in New Britain, CT, snakes through the Midwest and ends on the Mexican border in Brownsville, TX. The lyric writing here is more subdued, but idiosyncratic lines like "I will burn all the calendars that counted the years down to such a worthless day" (from "Twin Human Highway Flares") pervade the record. They are, however, intricately worked into Darnielle's trademark manic-percussive strumming. The overall result is even better than his more populated work. (Brian Howard, Philadelphia City Paper)
For all intents and purposes, mild-mannered John Darnielle is the Mountain Goats. Beginning as a creative outlet for Darnielle in the early '90s while working as a psychiatric nurse in California, the Mountain Goats' early sound was primitive, emotionally violent and hypnotic. Darnielle bashed his acoustic guitar like a snare drum and almost literally sang his heart out with primarily first-person tales of woe, heartache, infidelity and Scandanavia. Eventually, the Mountain Goats' home-recorded cassettes gave way to full-length albums (the best of which are 1995's Nine Black Poppies and Sweden) and the addition of a since-departed bass player. In 2000, Darnielle re-emerged from the longest absense of his career (three years) with his strongest, and most visceral album to date, The Coroner's Gambit To watch Darnielle pound out his deeply personal songs is an experience that cannot easily be described. Even more amazing, is the contrast between the high intensity of his singing persona and his normal, quietly-spoken self. (Spin)
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