A good time with Mountain Goats
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN ” Singer-songwriter John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats says we should expect a fun time at the band’s Monday-night show at Belly Up Aspen.
That may be a trite thing to say about a concert in a good-times town such as Aspen. But then, your typical apres-ski band doesn’t trot out lyrics like:
“I think people are sometimes surprised by how much emphasis we place on having a good time. People expect the dude who writes dour songs about divorce to be dour in person, I guess. But making music is pure joy, so the live experience is kinda wringing joy from dour songs,” Darnielle wrote in an e-mail interview last week.
(Darnielle had this to say regarding the style of interview: “I hate talking on the phone. Just hate it … I avoid it whenever I can. Writing seems like a superior way to communicate, to me ” you’re likely to get better and more complete answers out of me that way.”)
Darnielle’s interviewing method is characteristic of his song-writing: He reaches for that particular emotion or image, never resorting to the easy cliche. The band (while other members visit and even linger, Darnielle is, in Jeff Tweedy/Wilco fashion, Mountain Goats’ essential member and creative engine) trades in short, sharp songs laced with interpersonal conflict and domestic longing, and rich with historical and literary metaphor.
Recent albums have taken on thematic threads. “We Shall All Be Healed” (2004) mines a group of friends addicted to methamphetamine. “The Sunset Tree” (2005) dissects Darnielle’s relationship with his abusive stepfather. Mountain Goats lyrics, while not always autobiographical, are intensely personal in nature.
Darnielle isn’t a “folk-festival politico” ” he’s not going to tell you who to vote for or what toothpaste to use ” but he says his songs are nonetheless quite political. “Interpersonal politics ” how people relate to each other; what happens when they can’t be kind ” that strikes me as somehow political. But ‘acoustic-guitar protest-singer dude’? It’s been done by people better at it than me, so I try to carve out my own territory.”
Some of the power of the Mountain Goats’ songs derives from their specificity. Much lyrical energy is devoted to particularizing scenes and circumstances, as in “You and Your Memory,” from “The Sunset Tree (2005).
“I have always looked at every physical thing as a sign of some underlying emotional reality,” Darnielle writes. “Ever since I was a kid, nothing looks neutral to me: colors, objects, shapes, cars, tables, trees, everything seems to have its own personality. Or ‘vibe,’ if you can stand to use the word ‘vibe,’ but it’s usually best to avoid it.”
Darnielle spits out these lyrics in raw, unaffected bursts, creating a vocal path through the song that’s not dictated strictly by the gorgeous acoustic-guitar-driven melody lines. His voice hops along in a high register, and while he doesn’t really miss notes per se, he’s not afraid to let one fall in grating fashion: This raggedness is key to the emotional content of the songs.
In addition to Darnielle on vocals and guitars, Mountain Goats are traveling with a bassist and drummer: It’s frankly not clear who, though Peter Hughes and producer John Vanderslice are integrally involved in the Goats’ current sound.
Mountain Goats have been an indie phenomenon throughout much of their 15-year existence and were well-known early for their productivity, their low-fi approach (solo home recordings on a boombox cassette player), and their eclectic subject matter. His discography includes titles such as “Yam, the King of Crops” (EP, 1994), “The Hound Chronicles” (EP, 1992), “Jam Eater Blues” (single, 2002), “Full Force Galesburg” (album, 1997), and “Beautiful Rat Sunset” (EP, 1994). And these were just the ones that saw daylight.
“Writing songs involves some blood and sweat, but really, is it asking that much of a dude to write a song a week? And, if not, wouldn’t that equal 52 songs a year? And if he’s a decent songwriter, should half those songs be good? I hope so,” he writes. “I do write slower than I used to, it’s true, but I think that’s just because I’m busier.” Indeed, Monday’s show is one of 13 in a 17-day period.
In 2002 Mountain Goats signed to the 4AD label (quasi-major, but with indie cred), and most recently recorded “Get Lonely” (2006), an ironic spin on Elvis Costello’s already-ironic 1980 title “Get Happy.” Mountain Goats’ next album will be called “Heretic’s Pride,” 13 songs with “a connecting feel,” but not a concept album per se. “It is about all sorts of people, most of whom are sort of like gunfighters who realize they haven’t got anything in the chamber. More up-tempo than the last album.”
While Mountain Goats have moved in a more “mainstream” direction (now, with bona-fide studio production values!), the future of mainstream music is clearly at a crossroads, with the advent of digital music disrupting the established record-label distribution system. Radiohead last month released its new album, “In Rainbows,” online-only, asking its fans to pay not a fixed price but instead “whatever they wanted to pay.”
How do musicians survive in such an environment? “The secret to longevity is genuinely loving the people who listen to your music. You express that love by trusting them to do right by you,” Darnielle writes. “Scary stuff: How many jobs are going to ask that sort of thing from a person?”
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