Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Big Little Profile: John Darnielle

Despite an unnecessarily large record collection there are actually very few artists / bands that I can say I've stuck with unfailingly over the last 30 years of serious listening.  I thought doing a few (relatively shallow) in depth profiles of these choice folk might serve to broaden their appeal.  First up John Darnielle.

First exposure

I think the first release was Nine Black Poppies on Emperor Jones ... followed quickly by Sweden on Shrimper records, both in 1995.  This was the heyday of the micro-indie label and lo-fi production... and the Mountain Goats had that in spades.  Most of the tracks on these two releases were recorded live to two track on a recorder whose condenser mic also picked up the sound of the tape motor whirring.  This whir was always loud on the intro and extro of the tracks.  The key track for me on these releases had to be "Cubs in Five" on Nine Black Poppies.  It's lyrics were all about the massively improbable coming to pass, like "Bill Gates will single-handedly spearhead / The Heaven 17 revival," with the chorus being a big, sappy "And I will love you again / I will love you  like I used to."  This couplet was the topic of debate between an ex and me on whether the line was meant as sarcasm or magical affirmation.  I'll let you guess who sided with what.  The other stand out track that I still love on Sweden is the atypical Casio keyboard track "California Song," another lovesick ditty with the lines like "I know that in California the waves break on the beach / and I know that the foam on the breaking waves is as white as household bleach" and "You treat me badly / I love you madly / You really got a hold on me."  Damn.

Cementing the Deal

Darnielle obviously had a geyser of songs coming out of him with 5 albums between '95-'97 plus enough cassettes, 7" inches, magazine compilaton tracks etc. to later fill up three compilations of early songs (Protein Source of the Future Now, Bitter Melon Farm and Ghana came out on 3 Beads of Sweat in 2002 with a combined total of 81 songs).  But the album that cemented the deal for me from this early period was Full Force Galesburg on Emperor Jones.  Its more focussed, still a mixed bag of lo & hi fi recording styles but with a heart-on-the-sleeve truth coupled with acerbic wit that carried Mountain Goats torch from here on out.


After another small handful of lo-fi releases spread across a few labels Mountain Goats joined the venerable 4AD and got a boost to their production as a result.  First out of the gates was Tallahassee, Darnielle's ruminations of love gone wrong through a variety of lenses, including a hyper-dysfunctional couple he long ago invented as both muses and mouthpieces for his malaise.  The revelation for many fans came with 2005's Sunset Tree.  For the first time Danielle came out from behind his characters and travelogue songwriting and wrote in his own voice, or rather in the voice of his teenage self suffering through a destabilizing relationship with his abusive step-father.  It revealed very clearly his ability to turn the emotionally complex and harrowing into hook-loaded pop tunes. 

Extra Credit

Most recently, besides a form-confirming late 2009 release on 4AD called Life of the World to Come, an album about death with biblical quotes for titles (not as heavy as that sounds), Darnielle revisited a partnership began in 2002.  Then called The Extra Glenns, he and Nothing Painted Blue's Franklin Bruno released a great album called Martial Arts Weekend.  This year they've appended the band name to The Extra Lens and put out an even better effort called Undercard.  After TMG's conceptually grounded efforts this topic-hopping free for all is a welcome sight.  Though the topics are mostly grim [abandoned suicide attempts ("Some Other Way"), evangelical hypocrisy ("How I Left the Ministry")  and financial collapse ("Rockin' Rockin' Twilight of the Gods"), for example] their handling is again played for uptempo satire by and large.  A super-subdued cover of Randy Newman's "In Germany Before the War" is the album's spirit animal and keynote.

In Summation

There's no bad point to start your own consideration of the Darnielle oeuvre... but here is a short list of recommendation that shine a little more brightly:

Full Force Galesburg (1997)
All Hail West Texas (2002)
Tallahassee (2002)
The Sunset Tree (2005)
Life of the World to Come (2009)
Undercard (The Extra Lens) (2010)

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