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Mountain Goats LP Tells 'Doomed Love' Story

It's been observed that Mountain Goats shows are often jam-packed with affectionate couples. The Mountain Goats are actually John Darnielle, who sings rapid-fire, complex lyrics with crisp delivery to piquant and unexpected melodies. He admits that he makes couples-oriented music. However, the idiosyncratic performer adds, "I fantasize they're no longer actually couples and want to lock into the I-loved-you-and-now-I-wish-someone-would-kill-us-both groove that so many of my songs encourage. But probably that's not the case. I've been asked to play at several weddings."

No one ever said love was rational, least of all Darnielle, who has pioneered what might be called the "relationship/suicide" genre and is known for writing songs that loosely fit into ongoing series. Due in stores Nov. 5, Tallahassee, his first release for celebrated English label 4AD (Pixies, Breeders, Red House Painters, Throwing Muses), is a full album of his "Alpha" series of songs. It's a concept album about the dark end to an already doomed relationship.

In an email sent from his home in Ames, Iowa, Darnielle explained: "A long, long time ago I started writing these songs about a young married couple who a) were doomed and knew it, b) were barreling headlong toward divorce, and c) were as in love with alcohol as they were with the memory of the love in whose murder they were presently conspiring. Which is to say: they were songs about people who saw which way the wind was blowing in their lives and opted to go down with the ship rather than save themselves.

"This gets complicated," Darnielle added, "but what could deepen a love more than the shared knowledge that all is lost?

"So they start running to various places," he continued. "Mexico, Catalina. They spend a year in a motel in Vegas. Where it all comes to a boil is in Tallahassee [in northern Florida], in a crumbling house they occupy together while drinking themselves into the ground. Tallahassee is 14 songs about the bad things that go on in the house they buy on Southwood Plantation Road. Which road may or may not actually exist, but was on an antiquated map of the region I had."

The 14 songs are "Tallahassee," "First Few Desperate Hours," "Southwood Plantation Road," "Game Shows Touch Our Lives," "The House That Dripped Blood," "Idylls of the King," "No Children," "See America Right," "Peacocks," "International Small Arms Traffic Blues," "Have to Explode," "Old College Try," "Oceanographer's Choice" and "Alpha Rats Nest."

What drives Darnielle to write songs based on such twisted material? "Many of my songs take as their springboard the pain of separation," he wrote. "Being separated from people or places or things is always hard, and I come from a Californian generation whose parents routinely divorced because 'things weren't working out.' I sing about the real consequences of termination — relationships, living circumstances — and I think the people who like what I do hear the dark humor at the bottom of such an enterprise."

"Dark humor" does not capture this lyricist's uncommon wit. His sing-along tunes are filled with lyrics oozing with bilious comedy, by turns literate, dramatic and tragic. In "First Few Desperate Hours," for example, Darnielle sings: "When cloven hoof prints turn up in the garden/ We keep up the good fight/ To keep our spirits light/ But they drop like flies."

Each line is darker than the last in "No Children," which is slightly reminiscent of Hal Ashby's 1971 black comedy, "Harold and Maude." To a guitar-and-piano-driven tune, Darnielle sings, "I hope I cut myself shaving tomorrow/ I hope it bleeds all day long/ Our friends say it's darkest before the sun rises/ We're pretty sure they're all wrong." And these are hardly the song's — or the album's — most ominous lyrics.

Tallahassee is the Mountain Goats' first recording with a star producer. Tony Doogan (Mogwai, Delgados, Belle and Sebastian) recorded the band at Tarbox Studios in upstate New York (where the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev record) and mixed it at Glasgow, Scotland's Cava Studios, where, as Darnielle puts it, Doogan "added surprises" such as bells to "Idylls of the King." Previous Mountain Goats albums have tended to consist of Darnielle's intense, melodic vocals accompanied by the furious strumming of his acoustic guitar.

Other "goats" this time out are Diskothi-Q's Peter Hughes (bass, guitar, drums, keyboards, shaker, harmonies), Darnielle's longtime collaborator Franklin Bruno (guitar, piano), and the Flaming Lips' Michael Ivins (tambourine). The Delgados played several instruments on "Oceanographer's Choice," a bitter, bluesy rock song with drums. The Mountain Goats have rarely, if ever, integrated drums into their sound.

Darnielle has been known for his super-lo-fi aesthetic, which goes back to tape-trading days on the famous Southern California Shrimper label. His extreme recording preferences led to an avoidance of four-tracks in favor of ghetto blasters. "Everybody was multi-tracking when I got started — it just seemed so boring. And what I was doing with my boom-box just seemed so much more raw than your guy-with-an-electric-guitar-and-a-four-track thing."

These days he's excited about signing to 4AD — the singer/songwriter has himself been a fan of the label over the years. "I remember when the Cocteau Twins were this brand new thing, not to mention The Pixies — this is just a good label, with a history of releasing good, interesting records and some of the best album design ever." Regarding album design, Tallahassee is an elaborate affair with paper foldouts and inserts, comprising an artful audio-visual package.

It's been a busy year for Darnielle. Tallahassee is his third full-length release for 2002. In February the Mountain Goats' All Hail West Texas was released on Emperor Jones to critical acclaim. In January,Absolutely Kosher released the Extra Glenns' recorded debut, Marshall Arts Weekend; Extra Glenns is a collaboration between Darnielle and Bruno. (See previous story: "Mountain Goats To Release LP On 4AD".)

Raised in Claremont, Calif., Darnielle moved to Ames in 1995. In addition to recording and performing, he works with kids in a residential setting there, publishes Last Plane to Jakarta, a zine with a singular, eccentric vision, and freelances to various music magazines. Darnielle is one of the few thoughtful rock critics carrying the torch for "death metal," which he defines — metaphorically — as "castles in ruins with the rotting corpses of wizards and knights who were killed by seriously ugly-looking alien life forms who had righteously hi-tech weapons of death."

His favorite death metal bands are Kataklysm, Nile, Dark Tranquility, Morbid Angel, Arch Enemy ("Their singer is a woman!" he comments. "A tall, blonde woman who looks like she just stepped off a modeling runway! And she sings in your standard metal bark/growl! For real!") and The Forsaken. "There's lots of other Metal I like, too: some black metal (not the Nazi stuff), and lately some of this Goth/Death/Black/Power Metal mix-up stuff that's really getting big in Finland."

The Mountain Goats are presently touring the U.S., often sharing the bill with John Vanderslice. October was spent touring England, Ireland and the West Coast of the U.S.

What's on the horizon for Darnielle? Besides experiencing "endless long stretches of Iowan road unoccupied by aught save corn or bean rows," the productive musician is already writing new songs. Uh, make that love songs. "When you're some distance from closer concentrations of crackheads, they begin to seem kind of romantic in a sick sort of way," he noted. "Plenty of the songs I've been writing feature young crackheads in love, to tell you the God's honest truth." — Jillian Steinberger [Monday, Nov. 4, 2002]

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