Ruminations on TV Shows, Comics, And Music
Every year, more and more people on my various social media feeds post links to the Mountain Goats' "This Year". Some of them have never heard another Mountain Goats song, some of them have every album (even the cassettes) that John Darnielle ever even contemplated recording.
I'm not at all an expert on the band. I have dated and lived with a variety of people who played their songs since the late 90s. I have enjoyed the music, dismissed the music, been frustrated by songs put on repeat, and occasionally wished for an alternate universe where The Mountain Goats didn't exist (through no fault of the actual band).
2020 was the year a series of communities were forced to move from in-person to online, and that included a poetry community I'm a part of. Every week we do a themed event where people might write about birds, water, wearing a bunny suit, their personal hells, whatever mood strikes the sadistic organizer (who is me). About 1/3rd of the weeks, someone submits a poem that references The Mountain Goats. It's not always the same person, either. Some of the rest of the group scratches their facial hair and says something akin to "I guess I'll have to look up these Mountainous Sheep" (many in the group are comfortably unhip) "and give their music a listen."
Well, here you are ye ancient poets. A primer discography for The Mountain Goats. Their actual output is stunningly dense with more songs that anyone should have to listen to in a year. I've cut and pasted their EPs and their full albums together, leaving almost no corner of their output untouched. The exception? The cassette albums. Ispent a majority of the mid to late nineties messing around with other peoples' four or eight track recorders trying to help them edit their concept album about cars or their whiney, accidentally misogynist songs about how nobody loved them. The unprofessional lofi hiss (there are some that rise to professional levels) just brings back too many boring memories, so I just can't endure the cassette output. But I am combing through everything else.
We're going to start with the lowest-fidelity I can handle. The early EPs leading up to their first full-length adventure: Zopilote Machine, as well as tracks from said album. It's one of the shorter albums I've ever done for one of these discographies, but 1.) The early Mountain Goats songs tend to blend together and cause me to lose interest after a while, and 2.) It feels wrong to make this longer. Tape is expensive!
Everybody ready? Sinaloan Milk Snake Song pretty much encapsulates the early sound of The Mountain Goats for me. Strummy guitar, a seemingly stream of consciousness set of lyrics, nasally lead vocals. It's musically upbeat (partially due to the background vocals from The Casual Girls and the la la la la la la la la refrains) while the lyrics are fairly downerish. It's a contrast that seems inherent in almost all of Darnielle's music. It just *sounds* like everything is going to be okay, even as he sings about how awful everything is.
We have a staticy interlude before the percussive guitar moves in for the near-Christmas song (holly and mistletoe?), Night Of The Mules. Clip-clop clip-clop.
I bury the hum from the beginning of Pure Honey beneath the percussion of the previous track. I just enjoyed the way they flowed together. Like many of the songs on this mix, the track clocks in at under two minutes. It's just this weird little misdirect song, where you think it's going to have some sort of existential meaning, but it just plops in a random phrase and stops. They have a more famous version of this trick called "Monkey Song" but I much prefer this song, as the lyrics end almost as soon as it reaches the weirdness, and it just repeats the song instrumentally.
Azo The Nelli In Tlalticpac is quite the mouthful. And it sounds like pretty much every track where one dude plays a guiatar and sings a serious and repetitive song into a four track recorder. I'm not sure I'd like this song if it weren't so lo-fi. The lyrics are fine. The guitar is adequate. It just seems to be one of the prime listenable examples of this kind of recording.
Drum machines and keyboards? On this album? Yeup. If Song For Tura Santana wasn't recorded in a basement or a windowless one-room studio apartment, then it is a musical crime. It's so basic.
Then beneath the basic fade out, Barbara Streisand gets all melodramatic, and then Quetzacoatl Is Born rises in nasally, strumming glory. It makes me want to break out the Saddle Creek catalogue, put on an unnecessary winter hat, and smoke some American Spirits. Into the fire you go!
We Have Seen The Enemy is one of those lovely Dude Talks Over Guitar Until Oh Shit! He's Singing Now Because This Is A Song. It's a trope I often enjoy, and this track is no exception. I also like that you get One Verse of the song, and then it's over.
On Tuesday nights for a few years, a few friends and writers would meet up for drinks at a bar called Grendel's Den. It's pretty much my only positive association with the Beowulf villain, apart from Grendel's Mother, which at least one of my former roommates used to sit in his bedroom and play for hours at a time.
Going To Lebanon seems like a musical continuation of the previous track. Like Grendel's mom has nowhere to run to / nowhere to go except Lebanon. And why not? We also have the return of The Casual Girls, who aren't always on-pitch, or even well-harmonized, and yet I enjoy them every time they show up in this discography.
I guess Lebanon didn't work out for the narrator beause now he's Going To Maryland, and he didn't even take The Casual Girls with him! He's just focused on water. Which, ok. Why not?
Another song that bubbles in under the previous track is Pure Love which is a lovely keyboard-belltone song about how someone plots to steal the narrator's heart, even though he never mentions his heart or does more than hint that a crime has been committed. Also, it won't be necessary. He keeps telling you that.
The Mountain Goats has a series of songs from 1991-1995 called "Standard Bitter Love Song"s. They're fine. But my favorite bitter love song of his is Orange Ball Of Hate, which is also a counterpart to "Orange Ball Of Love", which is a fine song, but didn't quite make the cut for me, even though it would have been a neat callback.
Pure Heat keeps mentioning the weather from the last track. We're nearing the end of this very short album, and this feels like just the track to tow us there.
In fact, here we are at the end, and, what's that? We have another journey to take? Ok, I guess we're Going To Georgia. This song just sounds like something twenty-somethings in the mid-nineties would yell loudly along with the band. The club was way past capacity because the fire codes wouldn't be taken seriously for another five or six years. The club reeks of cheap cigarettes, sweat, and probably a bit of patchouli. The bartenders are pissed because there is almost nobody over twenty at this show. And then the song stops, and the kids cheer, but they don't Go anywhere (not even Georgia or Maryland or Lebanon) because there's nothing else to do in this town but go to small indie shows and talk about leaving. "If I don't make it," the audience thinks, "I hope this band does."