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Fresh Mountain Air

 

The Mountain Goats: All Hail West Texas

Emperor Jones, 2002

Rating: 4.0

 

 

Posted: February 23, 2002

By Laurence Station

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 for.

 
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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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
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 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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