Thursday, April 24, 2008

Review: The Mountain Goats - Heretic Pride

In an effort to bolster my ability to write album reviews, which I have not done in the year since my fruitful stint at the GW Hatchet ended, I will be -- you guessed it! -- writing album reviews. Initially, my goal was to do this once every week for a new and/or obscure album, and I'd like to stick to this starting today.

Two months ago, Pitchfork Media's notoriously critical reviewers gave the breakdown on Heretic Pride, the latest release from The Mountain Goats. Headed by quirky staccato singer John Darnielle, Goats has a unique sound in an indie market that is oversaturated with acoustic singersongwriter types. What makes the difference, without a doubt, are his completely out-of-left-field vocals and his blunt narratives.

Darnielle babbles completely coherently about so many topics it will make your head spin: war, death, love, spies, religion, pride, redemption, apocalypse, sex, childhood, and even alien invasion...and not once does he lose the attention of the listener. Aside form a few weak spots (namely the 'Puff The Magic Dragon'-esque "Tianchi Lake" and "Swamp Creature"), it was difficult to pick what to focus on since it was all so riveting and beautiful, but here are some highlights:

Sax Rohmer #1 (Track 1): This song is the most explosive that an acoustic rock song can possibly be. The build just blows my mind. Darnielle starts simply enough, with a basic muted strum (more on this later) and light vocals, but by the second half of the first verse you can already feel the tension creeping in. Electric guitar starts to flow all around the chords, drums start to come in from the bottom up, and by the time the first chorus arrives, Darnielle is belting the oddly meaningful "I am coming home to you, with my own blood in my mouth" at the top of his very limited (but not limiting) range. And, given his quirky yet satisfying vocal ability, it hits my heart like a ton of bricks. I still can't figure out why.

San Bernadino (Track 2): "You got in the warm warm water, I pulled the petals from my pocket. I loved you so much just then." The frankness of the lyric is the essence of Darnielle's ability to tell his story quickly and easily, and make you feel how deeply true it is.

So Desperate (Track 6): There is not a solitary defining lyrical or musical moment to this song, but only because it reaches bare-bones perfection. The same few chords are repeated throughout, and the chorus contains only seven words ("I felt so desperate in your arms"), but these act in perfect, uncomplicated unison to signify the love Darnielle eloquently narrates.

In The Craters On The Moon (Track 7): Two old cowboys saunter to the center of town, surrounded by the old saloon and general store, their spurs jangling and boots crunching the dusty rocks. Tumbleweeds scurry across the barren landscape, vultures circle overhead and call out in anticipation of inevitable death, and aside from their cries the town is tensely, silently awaiting the impending duel. From note-one, "Craters" feels musically like the Old West, and lyrically like a war-driven topical powerhouse. Darnielle frantically and frustratedly matches his vocals to the drums, which standout dynamically for one of the only times on the album (in a good way), especially during the timelessly relevant refrain, "In the declining years of the long war," which is delivered much more effectively than it looks on paper (or on screen).

And that's how this album can be defined...with light and sharply delivered vocals that never seem to match Darnielle's incisive and deeply personal (though not autobiographical) lyrics. Of course, I have one overarching complaint that applies to almost every song, and it is the 'basic muted strum' that I referenced earlier. Rhythmically, the album has virtually no variation at all. The accented notes in Darnielle's strumming pattern on 9 of the 13 tracks all fall on the same beats (1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +). This might not make sense if you've never played the drums or taken a music theory class, but essentially this means that most songs after the first are rhythmically identical to the ones before it. If Darnielle did this intentionally, a rhythmic theme is a stroke of genius. If it was an oversight on his part, it was a massive one. Luckily, it hardly takes anything away from the album as a whole. After a dozen listens, each one more pleasant than the last, I can once again say Pitchfork has led me in the right direction.

And so I hope to lead you there, as well. Buy it if you can, steal it if you can't, and enjoy it either way.

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