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The Mountain Goats - Tallahassee

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Artist: The Mountain Goats

Album: Tallahassee

Label: 4AD

Review date: Nov. 24, 2002

Should We Be Shouting “Judas” Right Now?

Critics can easily fall into a trap of making overly broad statements about artistic transitions. For example, many wrote that Conor Oberst's electric transition with Desaparacidos was comparable to Bob Dylan's similar transition. This makes very little sense for a variety of reasons, namely that Oberst’s heavier band is more a side project than a new direction. It’s a little presumptuous and rather pointless to make that sort of statement about any artist, even using Dylan as an archetype rather than a direct comparison. That said, John Darnielle is our generation’s Bob Dylan and with Tallahassee, he has certifiably “gone electric.”

Much of the Mountain Goats’ output up to this point has consisted of John Darnielle furiously strumming an acoustic guitar and shouting into a department store cassette tape player with a malfunctioning condenser mic. Darnielle’s songs are filled with literary allusions and bizarre metaphors, and often appear to express his feelings about personal relationships through stories about things like someone stealing his co-co yams. The closest thing to over-production that can be found on most Mountain Goats records is the fading out of the tape recorder’s wheelgrind sound between songs.

Upon preliminary examination, Tallahassee is a sharp break from the Mountain Goats’ previous work. The band’s first release on the 4AD label, it has packaging that looks typical of that label’s artwork, with fancy metal lettering spelling out “Mountain Goats” arranged on top of strange watery background. The promo sticker unashamedly proclaims, “recommended if you like Cake, They Might Be Giants and the Violent Femmes,” which is quite alarming. The music itself seems as though it was made in an actual recording studio with an actual producer and many actual overdubs, which, oddly enough, it was. Apparently Darnielle has abandoned his lo-fi past and moved squarely into the realm of glossy over-produced rock bands. It’s enough to make dozens of indie-rock-obsessed English majors all over the country shriek in terror (or, proverbially, shout “Judas”).

However, it's not actually quite so dramatic. The Mountain Goats Proper have taken various forms over its history, with a variety of different members and recording situations. Most of the full-length Mountain Goats albums are some combination of studio and home recordings (though the last one, 2001’s All Hail West Texas, was recorded wholly on Darnielle’s trusty old Panasonic.) The addition of Peter Hughes, whose busy basslines give a little extra bounce to Darnielle’s quickly strummed guitar, should resolve a lot of the confusion about whether to use a singular or plural pronoun to replace “The Mountain Goats” in conversation. About half of the album’s songs also have some extra instrumentation, ranging from some keyboard fills to an all-out rock band with drums and lead guitars. This can be heard on on “Oceanographer’s Choice” and “See America Right,” the album’s first (gasp!) single. The extra polish will take longtime fans of the band a few listens to get used to but works quite well, especially on those two fully arranged songs.

Lyrically, Tallahassee is about a couple who are familiar to listeners from several previous Mountain Goats songs, most of which have the word “alpha” in their title. Tallahassee stands chronologically in the middle of the “alpha” cycle; the couple is living in a house in Tallahassee and deciding whether they want to stay together, throwing an awful lot of emotional cruelty at each other. Listen to the song “Alpha Omega” (not on this album) for the outcome of the story (one day, she justs leaves). Like those on All Hail West Texas, the songs have a more straight-forward narrative style than a lot of older Mountain Goats songs, but there are still enough strange devices to keep those previously mentioned English majors happy. Completely without irony, Darnielle sings, “Our love is like the border between Greece and Albania.” on the song “International Small Arms Traffic Blues.” For the most part, Darnielle’s singing style on Tallahassee is subdued and sweet, and never sounds forced, even when he does decide to blare it out.

Tallahassee shows that the Mountain Goats’ songs can be quite strong even when separated from the boombox production values, which became a bit gimmicky at some point in the Darnielle's career. Ultimately, the album pulls off the switch rather well without comprimising the band’s honesty. It is both a good album and a Mountain Goats album, though it seems strange that this album will likely be many people’s introduction to the band. Truthfully, John Darnielle is actually only Bob Dylan to some subset of our generation (quite possibly only myself), but perhaps like Dylan, the Mountain Goats will put out as many great albums in their new style as their old. It’s a bit premature to predict any Dylan-esque steps (be they positive or negative) to come in Darnielle's career, but it seems likely that there will a lot more good music coming from the Mountain Goats in years to come.

By Jason Voss

Other Reviews of The Mountain Goats

All Hail West Texas


We Shall All Be Healed

The Sunset Tree

Get Lonely

Heretic Pride

The Life of the World to Come

All Eternals Deck

Transcendental Youth

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