REVIEW: Mountain Goats: Tallahassee
Mountain Goats: Tallahassee [4AD, 2002] (mp3s)
Three words? in stereo sound
I remember the first time I encountered the Mountain Goats. It was at a small, liberal arts college just outside of Philadelphia, in an even smaller on campus club, packed right to the doors, with people pushed to the railing of the balcony on the left side of the room. John Darnielle took stage, really a riser off the floor, sitting on a stool with his guitar and a microphone. I thought to myself, "Oh boy, another singer songwriter". But then this unassuming character started strumming his guitar like a madman, howling otherworldly stories into the microphone. The kids went nuts, singing along. He had them. I have never seen a performer capture an audience like that. He chatted amiably with them, sang songs that sounded they would feverishly spin out of control but he reined them back in.
I purchased a couple of his CDs over the years and nothing ever quite came close to the magic of Darnielle's live shows. For the most part, the Mountain Goats' output was recorded straight to boombox - literally - and perhaps it's the audiophile in me, but I could never get past the poor quality of the recordings. No matter the passion John Darnielle put into the songs, the tinny microphone could not do him justice as it did to the country and blues singers in the twenties and thirties when they recorded into a single microphone in primitive studios.
Tallahassee marks the Mountain Goats' first true studio album, but John Darnielle doesn't stray from his strengths. Like his earlier records, the strengths lie in his voice and lyrics and here he doesn't falter. In addition to his guitar and strong voice, Darnielle is joined by Peter Hughes who plays a variety of instruments, and is guested by Franklin Bruno on a couple of songs.
John Darnielle also raises the stakes by constructing a loose concept album based around the breakup of a couple. It's not cut-and-dried lyrically; things are kept abstract - the relationship is compared to the house falling into disrepair, the road in a faded photograph, memories mixed up and played back. And it's beautiful.
It doesn't take long for things to get bad (thematically): three songs in, we are given the keyboard-driven "Southwood Plantation Road". Darnielle wavers between love, frustration and desperation with lyrics like: "Our conversations are like minefields/no one's found a safe way through one yet" and "I am not going to lose you/we are going to stay married ". In "No Children", mid way through the album, hope is starting to give way: "I hope our few remaining friends give up on trying to save us" and "I am drowning/there is no sign of land/you are coming down with me/hand in unlovable hand/I hope you die/I hope we both die".
I could go on for paragraphs quoting and describing the lyrical richness of this LP, but I must applaud the musical richness as well. With Tallahassee, the Mountain Goats are realizing the emotional potential John Darnielle's songs preent. Studio recording and subtle support instrumentation have added wonders to his already fine offerings. This isn't to shrug off lo-fi recordings in the least, for some it works fantastically, but the pulse beating behind the Mountain Goats cannot be captured in one microphone nor channeled through one guitar. Here's hoping Tallahassee is the first part in many epic stories presented by the Mountain Goats in stereo sound.