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Fresh Mountain Air
The Mountain Goats: All Hail West Texas
Emperor Jones, 2002
Posted: February 23,
For the Mountain Goats (an ultra lo-fi outfit formed in California back
in 1991), anything more advanced than an acoustic guitar and a tape recorder
is considered an extreme indulgence. So after waxing near-symphonic on
2000's The Coroner's Gambit (Absolutely Kosher), by adding auxiliary
guitars and (what may be a first) actual strings, principal Goat John
Darnielle returns to basics with the winsome and plaintively affecting All Hail West Texas.
Utilizing his trusty Panasonic RX-FT500, Darnielle settles down on the
couch, pulls a guitar across his lap and clicks the record button.
The end result, while primitive by even the most stringent lo-fi standards,
is a solid collection of story-songs forming a thematic cycle built around
the central aphorism: "Home is where the heart is."
The opening "The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton" follows the
desires of two friends hoping to make their mark in the music world, while
"Jenny" focuses on a rebellious spirit born of riding a motorcycle,
pointedly affirmed by the line, "We were the one thing in the galaxy God
didn't have his eyes on." "Fault Lines" follows two spendthrift lovers
traveling across the Southwest, materially satisfied but acutely aware of
the gnawing emptiness dominating the center of their relationship. "We are
experts in the art of frivolous spending," the song's narrator sings,
offering neither solution nor justification for the mindless materialism
that's replaced the love the couple once shared.
"The Mess Inside," the album's finest track, focuses on another
(or, more likely, the same) pair of
troubled lovers, traveling from Texas to the Bahamas to New Orleans,
desperate to save a disintegrating relationship by changing venues but
unable to outpace the demons within themselves. The breaking timbre in Darnielle's reedy voice when he explains how the couple "tried to fight the
creeping sense of dread with temporal things" explodes like an emotional
hand grenade, and the resulting shrapnel penetrates the rest of the disc.
Musically there's little more than Darnielle and his guitar, save for the
steady backbeat supporting the brooding tone poem "Blues in Dallas." This
approach forces Darnielle to carry the show all by his lonesome, free of
studio accouterments. Such courageously naked presentation might seem foolhardy in
this age of high tech audio airbrushing, but Darnielle lets the words
support or sink the music, allowing others to hide behind their Oz-like
digital curtains, while he stands front and center, wholly exposed on a
stripped bare stage.
For all its highpoints, All Hail does stumble in spots.
"Balance" and "Riches and Wonders" don't measure up, lyrically, to the rest
of the disc, while the obtuse "Pink and Blue" sticks out like a sore thumb
amongst the album's more straightforward songs. These missteps undermine an
otherwise masterfully crafted work.
"Source Decay" contains what could easily pass for All Hail's
defining tagline: "I wish the West Texas highway was a Mobius Strip/I could
ride it out forever/When I feel my heart break." Indeed, the poignant
beauty of Darnielle's latest creation curves in on itself, revisiting common
themes with relentless dedication, as if hoping to catch a glimpse of that
which makes the human heart tick. While the answer to that question might forever
remain out of reach, Darnielle proves it's still one well worth questing
Old Goats Milk
For those in search of early
Mountain Goats material, two 1999 CD releases (A Protein Source of the Future...NOW!
and Bitter Melon Farm, both on Ajax Records) collect a wealth of early material.
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