Californian John Darnielle first used the moniker The Mountain Goats when, circa 1991, he purchased a Panasonic boom box and started recording his songs. His first couple of albums were released on the tape only Shrimper label and he quickly became ensconced in the American Lo-fi home recording scene. It was a genre that valued creativity over commercial viability, song-writing chops over musicianship, and an almost fetishist enthusiasm for tape hiss.
Since then The Mountain Goats have evolved into a full band and for Dark in Here the boom box has been swapped for the legendary Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama. For this release the line up has been bolstered by local guitarist and Will McFarlane and the legendary Spooner Oldham on keys.
The opening song, Parisian Enclave, isn’t a million miles away from Darnielle’s early lo-fi compositions. It’s vocally dexterous and witty although obviously the arrangement is much more developed. The production is flawless, and no discernible hiss can be heard (the Shoals boombox must have Dolby noise reduction).
The Destruction of the Kola Borehole Tower is where things really start to take off and finds the band sounding particularly (pun intended) muscular. With Peter Hughes pumping bass, McFarlane’s palm muted guitar and quickfire Darnielle’s geek chic vocals put me in mind of one of America’s finest bands, The Hold Steady. In the charismatic Franz Nicolay that band had a great keys player but, of course, Spooner, who is famous for never playing the same part twice, covers himself in glory here.
My love for the single Dark in Here is a little more complicated. Its arrangement with simple, fire and brimstone piano line, brooding shimmering guitar, and tom heavy drumming is the aural equivalent of a gathering storm. The foreboding lyrics are also excellent but, for me, Darnielle’s voice lacks the requisite violence and authority to make this kind of song work. The results is kind of like a Nick Cave and the Bad Seed’s track that’s completed an anger management course.
Lizard Suit, however, is a real standout. There is something the characters in Darnielle’s songs that just seem so well observed and understatedly funny. This features another noteworthy bassline and the drumming that switches from hi-hats and cymbals to toms as the song ascends to a free form melee, is rock solid. Sonically and lyrically it puts me in mind of some of Lambchop’s more laidback work.
The album suffers from a minor mid-album lull with a couple of songs take a couple of minutes to fully grab my attention. I suspect that with enough listens at least one of these will turn out to be a “grower’.
The album ends strong though, the lovely The Slow Parts on Death Metal Albums, is probably the best track on here. The rhythm section are slinky, Darnielle’s voice sounds great and there is some mutedly funky interplay between acoustic piano and, presumably, Spooners electric piano.
Arguing with Peter Laughner about his Coney Island Baby Review, at least to my untrained ear, doesn’t seem to reference either the leather clad ex-Velvet Undergrounder or his apparently critical divisive 1975 album. It is otherwise excellent, a soporific lullaby featuring a steadfast two note acoustic guitar part, unyielding as organ, clarinet, and acoustic lead weave in and out of its path.
Dark in Here is out on 25th June, via Merge Records