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The Mountain Goats

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The brainchild of Californian singer-songwriter John Darnielle, one can’t quite determine what makes this folk outfit tick (apart from the strumming of an acoustic guitar and sounding a cross between MIKE SCOTT and DANIEL JOHNSTON with a cold), but he/they were certainly an indie/lo-fi alternative to the plethora of derivative roots acts.
From working as a psychiatric nurse, while also building up to his graduation from Pitzer College in ‘91, John would subsidise his income by playing for a plethora of acts. As The MOUNTAIN GOATS, John, Rachel Ware and a few other disciples issued a couple of cassette-only mini albums for tiny label Shrimper, namely TABOO VI: THE HOMECOMING (1991) {*5} and THE HOUND CHRONICLES (1992) {*5}.
As the years progressed, Darnielle, now somewhat of a DANIEL JOHNSTON figure from his Californian homebase (in terms of his prolific release schedule), produced further cassette albums and various 7” singles, all recorded onto a crude ghetto-blaster, and all displaying his intricate guitar and vocal work.
His first album proper (CD, that is) was to be titled SWEDEN {*7} and was delivered in 1995 to critical acclaim. Again, entirely recorded on his stereo, Darnielle introduced what was to become classic MOUNTAIN GOATS motifs on the album; the now “famed” `Going To…’ set of songs and the equally frequented `Songs For…’. This debut set included the first of many oddball cover songs to come – STEELY DAN’s `FM’ for one! – and a bloody good version at that!
That same year, the ZOPILOTE MACHINE {*6} album was released. It contained a host of brilliant tracks including `Alpha Sun Heat’ and the wonderful `Going To Georgia’. The album also saw John maintain a raw taped production, which echoed BECK’s 1995 effort `One Foot In The Grave’, and helped push the lo-fi envelope further into the 90s (GRANDADDY, NEUTRAL MILK HOTEL and PAVEMENT were certainly taking note).
Darnielle and a couple of his musical buddies (Peter Hughes and Allen Callachi) moved into the studio for their mini-album release NINE BLACK POPPIES (1995) {*7}, some of these tracks being home-recorded. Featured on the set was the simple ballad `I Know You’ve Come To Take My Toys Away’ and a cover of Refrigerator’s `Lonesome Surprise’, dual-ly sung with the aforementioned Callachi (over the phone, me thinks!).
It was a hard task to keep up with the outfit but 1996 and 1997 saw The MOUNTAIN GOATS turn moody with their albums NOTHING FOR JUICE {*6} – co-written and sung with Rachel Ware and issued on Ajax Records – and the slightly disappointing FULL FORCE GALESBURG {*5}, a meditative, melancholic album that would see a 3-year hiatus for this mostly prolific one-man-band.
Darnell returned in 2000 – with members of LULLABY FOR THE WORKING CLASS and BRIGHT EYES on his sleeve – for the brilliant, scatterbrain release of THE CORONER’S GAMBIT {*7}. Another cathartic and rambling `Goats special (yes, it was back to the ghetto-blaster), JD made sure that his songs were given the proper treatment, albeit with the background tape-hiss making a welcome appearance. As was the case with his side project, the legendary EXTRA GLENNS, which saw himself and NOTHING PAINTED BLUE’s Franklin Bruno play San Francisco’s Noise Pop Festival and deliver the album `Martial Arts Weekend’ – something that had apparently been in the pipeline for ten years!
In 2002, The MOUNTAIN GOATS unfettered a ton-weight equivalent of material, beginning with ALL HAIL WEST TEXAS {*7}; check out the hilarious `The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton’, and three excellent retrospective compilations:- PROTEIN SOURCE OF THE FUTURE… NOW! {*6}, BITTER MELON FARM {*7} and GHANA {*7}. Of course, not forgetting the group’s freshly-recorded studio album TALLAHASSEE {*7}, their first for 4 a.d. Records.
The MOUNTAIN GOATS were a different proposition by this time, more polished, lusher and everything they were against when John started off many moons previously; albums from WE SHALL BE HEALED (2004) {*6} and the folky GET LONELY (2006) {*6} to HERETIC PRIDE (2008) {*6} and THE LIFE OF THE WORLD TO COME (2009) {*7} – featuring FINAL FANTASY’s Owen Pallett – sequentially sold better each time; the latter biblical road trip actually bubbled under the Top 100 for a few weeks. Surfacing on Merge Records, Darnielle and Co’s umpteenth set ALL ETERNALS DECK (2011) {*8} was indeed another concept piece, this time taking fictional tarot cards as its source of inspiration. The core trio of Darnielle, Hughes and Wurster worked with four producers on this occasion (Erik Rutan, Brandon Eggleston, Scott Solter and John Congleton), as wry, narrative references to the occult, ghosts and spectres channelled into `Damn These Vampires’, `Birth Of Serpents’, Prowl Great Cain’ and `High Hawk Season’, while name-checks flew out from `For Charles Brown’, `The Autopsy Garland’ and `Liza Forever Minnelli’.
Sandwiched either side of Darnielle’s inaugural novel, Wolf In White Van, The MOUNTAIN GOATS trio turned out two introspective sets: TRANSCENDENTAL YOUTH (2012) {*7} and BEAT THE CHAMP (2015) {*7}. Both breakthroughs into the Top 100, the former dealt with John’s self-observant character studies and autobiographical round-ups (`Cry For Judas’ about heartbroken hallucinations and `In Memory Of Satan’ on the other end of the biblical spectrum), while the latter concept was his ode to the superficial commercialization of pro wrestling.
A weird and wondrous choice of subject fodder, Darnielle was indeed a huge fan of the theatrical sport as a boy, only to be duly demoralised by its reinvention into a televised charade. From the IRON & WINE-ish `Southwestern Territory’ to the SEBADOH-like `Hair Match’, Darnielle also came off the ropes – so to speak – to give his best impressions of LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III versus MIKE SCOTT on `Stabbed To Death Outside San Juan’, `The Ballad Of Bull Ramos’ and `Werewolf Gimmick’. All ‘n’ all, to one’s knowledge, the best (and only) alt-rock songs concerning the world of pro wrestling.
From wrestling to an entirely different kettle of fish, The MOUNTAIN GOATS’ back-to-back concept (this time concerning GOTHS (2017) {*8}), was definitely not for serious SISTERS OF MERCY fans; although `Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back To Leeds’ might’ve compensated pale-faced disciples still reminiscing about the Batcave days of yore. The episodic dozen tracks on show here, pursued a fictional West Coast community in the 80s/90s; their subculture the subject matter of storyteller Darnielle (and Co), who’d now added Matt Douglas on woodwind/occasional keys). Name checks for The CURE’s Robert Smith and protagonist SIOUXSIE (on `Abandoned Flesh’) and “the GENE LOVES JEZEBELs” (within the track `Shelved’), bore no resemblance to the Goth movement psyche and sound, only a rearview-mirror glance at sophisti-AOR from the point of view of a now 50-something acolyte.
With a particular game in mind involving “dungeons” , 2019’s “partial rock opera”-inspired IN LEAGUE WITH DRAGONS {*7} had boyhood fan of “D&D” Darnielle (and Co) wooing kindred spirits and anyone else stumbling upon the tracks of The MOUNTAIN GOATS. The quartet had lost their way a little in the melee of commercial indie-pop music (in comparison to peak set, “Beat The Champ”), but in John’s endearing narratives such as `Passaic 1975’ (concerning a self-serving musician), `Doc Gooden’ (about a spent ballplayer), the wry `Waylon Jennings Live!’ and the pop-fuelled `Younger’, the creative songsmith-cum-novelist Darnielle was proving unstoppable.
As a response to the coronavirus pandemic spreading rough-shod throughout the globe, SONGS FOR PIERRE CHUVIN {*6} was hastily put together by a socially-distancing Darnielle – under The MOUNTAIN GOATS banner – via a Panasonic RX-FT500 boombox. Simply subtitled “10 New Songs – March 2020” – as depicted on the accompanying album artwork – the digital-only record best performed – in of all places – Scotland, where it briefly rambled just outside the Top 10, having failed to register a Top 100 place anywhere else. The title itself was by and large triggered from a French historian in his 1990 publication, A Chronicle Of The Last Pagans, though its correlation with the world’s troubles was unclear. Maybe separated from his band was a clue, but John was certainly under a lo-fi lockdown of sorts as he documented the days on best bits, `Aulon Raid’, `Until Olympius Returns’, `Their Gods Do Not Have Surgeons’, and finale `Exegetic Chains’.
Reverting to a band set up, The MOUNTAIN GOATS – i.e. Darnielle, bassist Peter Hughes, keyboards Matt Douglas and soft-shoe drummer Jon Wurster – reconvened from a lonely lockdown of sorts to unfetter another canny chapter a la GETTING INTO KNIVES (2020) {*7}. On more than one occasion the prolific Darnielle and Co were akin to MIKE SCOTT fronting VIOLENT FEMMES (e.g. `Corsican Mastiff Stride’ and `Get Famous’) – no easy feat indeed. However on further inspection, the singer’s confessional character stamped his own authority on some literate gems like `The Great Gold Sheep’, `As Many Candles As Possible’, `Picture Of My Dress’ and the closing title piece.
© MC Strong 2003-2011/GID-AS/GFD2 // rev-up MCS May2015-Oct2020

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