For an expanding horde of cassette-cuddling sub-undergrounders, home taping isn’t killing music, it’s about the only thing keeping it alive. Those folks have long held this shadowy Claremont, California, “group” (essentially singer/guitarist John Darnielle, plus whichever of his pals happens to have some free time and a spare Maxell) in high esteem. That’s due not only to the Goats’ unflagging dedication to budgetless recording, but on account of Darnielle’s inordinately guileless appreciation of life’s simple pleasures — and his palpable dismay over its equally basic disappointments.
Beyond what’s listed above and a couple of singles, the Mountain Goats have released five full albums only on tape. That’s fair, since the bulk of the material is gleaned from Darnielle’s direct-to-boombox recording (take that, all you 4-track “minimalists”). Yes, it’s a bit snobbish to insist that every bit of extraneous noise and equipment hum be conserved, but it’s Darnielle’s party and he’ll buzz if he wants to. The early EPs are hamstrung a bit by the academic’s polysyllabic excesses (Songs for Petronius betrays his fascination with mythology; Chile de Árbol‘s sleeve boasts a Chaucer quotation — in Middle English, no less). Once you master the lingo, however, they make for fascinating listening, particularly the latter EP’s “Fresh Berries for You,” a starry-eyed prophecy of the coming of…the Easter Bunny!
The eight-song Beautiful Rat Sunset kicks off with yet another paean to a rabbit endowed with mystical powers, but the madrigal-like stateliness of “Itzcuintli-Totzli Days” makes it clear that Darnielle isn’t just playing the quirkiness card: his affably alinear, vaguely acid-tinged ditties borrow randomly from history texts (“Song for Cleomenes”) and cookbooks (“Seeing Daylight”) alike, but he can drop the printed-word smarts for heart-rending recollections of lost-love night-sweats with a memory vivid enough to recall time (to the minute), place (to the exact address) and weather (particularly a moment when “the humidity climbed into numbers I don’t care to repeat”). Utterly charming.
Despite their fragmentary nature, Darnielle’s songs are much better suited to the longplaying format, as borne out by the rollercoaster emotional ride of Zopilote Machine. His artless strumming is about the only constant in a miasma of love songs (“Alpha Incipiens”), medieval minstrelsy (“Azo the Nelli in Thalticpac?”) and crypto-Aztec ruminations (“Quetzalcoatl Is Born”). It’s a whole lot — well, a little — less pretentious than it sounds, thanks to a delivery heartfelt enough to make Darnielle sound like he’s leading a revival meeting rather than a grad school seminar. To ratify the Mountain Goats’ status as a group, there’s even a harmony vocal (from either Rosanne, Rachel, Amy or Saarah) on “Sinaloan Milk Snake Song.” A little learnin’ never hurt anyone.
Nine Black Poppies is marked by a more standard adherence to song structure/timing and an unmistakable (if cryptic) comic bent. The latter element runs throughout “Cubs in Five” (a litany of implausibilities, such as “Bill Gates will singlehandedly spearhead the Heaven 17 revival”), but it’s the former that makes the album more accessible than Darnielle’s previous output. Sure, his yammerings often make the thesaurus a more likely accompaniment than air guitar, but when at his romantic best (like “Stars Fell on Alabama”), Darnielle is a troubadour par excellence — one who gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “getting medieval on your ass.”
The four-song Orange Raja, Blood Royal is notable for having violin parts overdubbed by New Zealand’s Alastair Galbraith.
Song cycles recur throughout Goats releases. Most abundant are the “Going to…” songs, in which the narrator namechecks a geographical destination, and the “Alpha” series, which chronicles a husband and wife in different, strained situations. Darnielle has other themes. He presents himself as an erudite autodidact, copping from literary giants, pre-Columbian history of the Americas and obscurities of Latin and Hebrew. His liner notes are likewise obscure, often in Latin, and eyebrow-raising, if not entertaining. Sweden, with songs subtitled in Swedish, jokingly includes the line, “Swedes are brilliantly cunning and ruthlessly ambitious.” Darnielle finds lyrical inspiration for his characters beyond his transplanted residence in Iowa. The “Going to…” series is represented by the terrific “Going to Bolivia” and “Going to Queens.” “Tollund Man” is seen from the eyes of a condemned pre-historic. “Prana Ferox” adds a little electric guitar feedback, but it’s the tracks with bass guitar and Rachel Ware’s harmony (“Deianara Crush,” “Neon Orange Glimmer Song”) that stand out from the pack. “Some Swedish Trees” is a simple stunner.
Graeme Jefferies of Cakekitchen guests on several Nothing for Juice tracks, adding distorted electric guitar to the mid-fi mishmash and leaving his distinctive mark on the album as a whole (check “Going to Kansas” for “I Feel Fine” feedback). The slight increase in production values on “Then the Letting Go” sets this one apart from previous releases. Darnielle more often than not puts himself in the first-person narrative here, a storytelling mode that becomes monotonous through songs that nearly all begin with “I saw,” “I watched,” “I went” or “I hear.” The “sun rises/moon sets” lyric has become an inside joke at this point. The “Alpha” series meets the “Going to…” series In “Alpha Double Negative: Going to Catalina.” “Hellhound on My Trail” honors Robert Johnson. The terrific start-stop “Alabama Nova,” “Going to Scotland” (“We watched the sun go down on Scotland / I loved you so much it was making me sick”), etc. leave you wondering just how much this man has really traveled. Not bad.
Full Force Galesburg (named for Carl Sandburg’s hometown) begins a collaboration with bassist Peter Hughes of Nothing Painted Blue. Still mostly solo-acoustic strums, it broadens the standard Goats mix with extra instrumentation and toes-in-the-water studio use. Darnielle’s interest in increasing riff intricacy is apparent on “West Country Dream” and “Masher.” “Minnesota” is actually about seeds from Holland. “Twin Human Highway Flares” is an oblique Neil Young reference, while the harmonica in “Snow Owl” is plainly Dylanesque.
New Asian Cinema and Isopanisad Radio Hour (named for the Sanskrit text) are both one-sided 12-inches. The former finds actual overdubs bringing breadth to “Cao Dai Blowout” and “Korean Bird Paintings,” both of which feature nifty banjo; the rest is back-to-boombox. On the latter, a light mix adds a brooding power to “Born Ready” and xylophone accents the modern folk tale “Cobscook Bay,” which typifies the Mountain Goats’ worrying sense of world longing (“Unmarked airplanes buzz the air / And you’re falling off that cliff somewhere in California / Which I’ve never seen”). “Pseudothyrum Song” reveals a personal side (claiming “I am a completely different person from the one you have in mind”), while a repeated arpeggio makes “The Last Limit of Bhakti” the disc’s best track.
Protein Source of the Future…Now! compiles the Chile de Árbol, Philyra and Yam, the King of Crops EPs with compilation appearances. Bitter Melon Farm collects Transmission to Horace, Songs for Petronius, Songs for Peter Hughes and further compilation contributions.
The cover of The Coroner’s Gambit (subtitled “Or Slavonic Dances. If you prefer.”) instructs that it “be sung at the bases of trees in Vancouver, Bombay, New Albany, Hull, Delft, Dar-es-Salaam, etc.” Though this conceit may be irrelevant to the contents, it does not seem gauzy for the sake of promoting eclecticism or a mark of meaningless iconoclasm, but simply a way to further populate the unique world that the Mountain Goats inhabit. Here the characters face strife and discontent in subject matter a bit darker (“I’d be grateful my children aren’t here to see this / If you’d ever seen fit to give me children,” in “Baboon”). Hope comes sideways in “Insurance Fraud #2” (“Bag full of oily rags / Fifty-cent lighter / Dreams of retirement in Cancun / Burning ever brighter”). “Family Happiness” is fattened with extra guitar, “Elijah” by violin.
Recorded after a relocation to the university town of Ames, Iowa, On Juhu Beach is a 3-inch CD EP which returns to the direct-to-boombox technique. Dylan comparisons resurface on the first half of this five-tracker, particularly on the nasally “Bad Waves” and “Trans-Jordanian Blues.” “World Cylinder” is Woody Guthrie by way of Henry Rollins.
All Hail West Texas (“fourteen songs about seven people, two houses, a motorcycle and a locked treatment facility for adolescent boys”) is the final boombox Goats release (the device having apparently died) and the first to have an obvious overriding theme. The location is a stand-in for any rural, small-town USA locale, and Darnielle provides witty, and not particularly flattering, vignettes from blue-collar America. “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton” is teen rock and roll observation (“In script that made prominent use of a pentagram / They stenciled their drumheads”). “Pink and Blue,” about a birth, is Darnielle at his most poignant. The subjects of “Riches and Wonders” exult in their small-town bounty while Darnielle observes them at arm’s length. “The Mess Inside” examines what happens when the characters travel outside their world. “Absolute Lithops Effect” summarizes it all with melancholy resignation.
Ghana collects Songs About Fire, Orange Raja, Blood Royal, Taking the Dative, Tropical Depression, compilation tracks and rarities. Devil in the Shortwave is another one-sided 12-inch whose variety makes it bob above the prolific flotsam. The witty “Commandante,” which interpolates “Oh Susana” and Ewan MacColl’s “Dirty Old Town,” shows that Darnielle has real roots, and that his humor is well-weathered and not just snarky.
Tallahassee was made with improved production values and released by the most substantial record label of Darnielle’s career. (Not surprisingly for 4AD, the cover art looks like something the Cocteau Twins might have done.) With a band and a real studio at his disposal, he focuses on the “Alpha” couple as they relocate to Florida. “First Few Desperate Hours” proves an indie-bedroom talent can actually blossom in a more professional setting. Piano by Franklin Bruno (Nothing Painted Blue) and help from Peter Hughes fleshes out songs that describe the stormy relationship. Mood and lyric match in “Game Shows Touch Our Lives” as distant-thunder cymbals back open chords; the darkly humorous “See America Right” uses a stomp-rock pattern; “Idylls of the King” puts xylophone and chimes in a Chet Atkins-like construction. “Oceanographer’s Choice” is the Mountain Goats’ first fully arranged pop creation. With an endless sense of riff and melody, there isn’t a bad song here. (That still doesn’t guarantee universal appeal for the nasal voice. Still, how many people can work with a phrase like “Our love is like the border between Greece and Albania”?)
The Goats then moved to North Carolina and went from being good (but eclectic) to truly great. Rather than expressing the voice of a created character, We Shall All Be Healed is distinctly autobiographical and musically robust. The songs concern young adult life, confronting the world and dealing with shady stoners. Perfectly arranged and one of the best of 2004, it’s an ideal starting point for newcomers.
Darnielle continued to write about himself on the cathartic and essential The Sunset Tree, including the memory flood that accompanies the death of a relative (in this case a disliked stepfather). This is the alien world of the suburban teenager revisited. The Dilaudid EP features a two-song preview, one non-album track and an alternate performance of the title track.
Come, Come to the Sunset Tree is roughly a demo rendition of The Sunset Tree. Eight songs overlap the CD and three don’t (“Up the Wolves” is more startling than anything on the official release).
Babylon Springs begins strong with “Ox Baker Triumphant,” the narration of a solo plane crash survivor. With its grand piano, “Sail Babylon Springs” sounds like a Bob Seger homage (but don’t let that scare you), and “Sometimes I Still Feel the Bruise” (a song by the Trembling Blue Stars) continues this rollicking romp.
After three remarkable full-lengths, the dark and difficult Get Lonely is a less ambitious achievement, addressing the ages-old lost love theme with spare acoustic arrangements. While the depression accompanying a relationship breakup comes through, several tracks lose their quirkiness in the studio setting (“Get Lonely”). Others (“Moon Over Goldsboro”) make it on lyrics alone.
The Extra Glenns is Darnielle with Franklin Bruno.