The naive rarely succeed in the music world; the embitters, jaded and cynical usually help the innocent to an early defeat. In John Darnielle's world, if naivete fares no better than in real life, at leas his futility is captivating. The writer-vocalist-guitarist of the Mountain Goats demonstrated his earnestness last week at the Middle East, offering the latest in a series of swan songs that make up his live appearances.
A clever performer and a witty lyricist, the man behind the Mountain Goats on his own terms stands as a giant of the bedroom-music scene. No matter that his following bears more resemblance to a secret club than music fans. Or that his set list is a conglomeration of travel itineraries and Latin aphorisms. With a broad smile and a warm hello, the club president is open and welcoming, and his concerts are large circles of friends who are all too eager to invite you into their slightly abnormal lives.
Darnielle's performances, like his music, are bitter yet endearing--songs range from unsettling weirdness to striking beauty. For an hour and a half at the Middle East Upstairs Concert Hall, the Mountain Goats put forth much of both, simultaneously soothing and unsettling a rather overeager but courteous audience. Pleasing a crowd that could have convinced unbelievers with a glimpse into the life of a Mountain Goat.
For anyone who misses the angst of early Morrissey or is weary of production levels beyond what can be accomplished in a high-schooler's bedroom--or anyone who has waited for a friend for hours in the pouring rain--the ballads of the Mountain Goats soar with innocence and purity. For anyone who can stand fervent strumming on an acoustic guitar and isn't bored watching a one-man ban rather than the recent group efforts of ska, Darnielle's music is amusing enough to be entertaining.
Much of the conert featured highlights from Darnielle's new album, "Full Force Galesburg." His latest musings on geography and gardening, Galesburg's separate songs work well in a type of narrative. Stringing different tracks together with music from three previous LPs, Darnielle's presentation worked better previous concerts which often bear a strong resemblance to a campfire singalong. He stuck to the set list he had prepared for 12 songs before submitting to the requests of the audience. Finally giving in and becoming a victim to the will of his fans, he held up his hands and declared that they could all fire away.
Opening with an older song "Sinaloan Milk Snake Song," Darnielle rapidly plunged into a sequence of five newer songs. Highlighting a primate theme, he offered "Baboon," an album he claimed to have written the previous afternoon.
From Claremont, Calif., Darnielle and his arrangements are never what they seem to be. He creates what appear to be simple folk songs with minimal instrumentation, yet his melodies are never mellow or folky. More urgent and driving than amny guitar heavy bands, his music is more punk than crunchy. In fact, the Mountain Goats emerged from the lo-fi movement swelling in southern California in the early '90s that set itself on forging simultaneously sloppiness and precision.
If most of those bands lost themselves in wearing novelty on their sleeve and valuing style over content, the man behind the Mountain Goats has continued to produce innovative music. He has developed and focused his song writing and instrumentation (two albums ago he added a backup singer and abass to the Mountain Goats) and created a sound all of his own. Producing music a world apart from that which is commonly heard on the radio today, Darnielle has admitted that his band sounds unlike any other because no one lese cares to.
The recorded Mountain Goats sound like the boyfriend that pushed you to screen your phone calls. The lyrics ooze of home-taped messages to be delivered to your door in the hopes that you would ask him back. With his child-like voice delivering strains in a slightly whiny tenor, Darnielle strums a pulsing guitar from what sounds like a few feet from the recorder. Almost shamefully catchy simple chord progressions and reptition form the structure of the Mountain Goats' music as the textured vocals offer meat and body to the songs. Beneath their basic melodic appeal, songs carry meaning in their own wrenching emotional code, typically loaded with jarring imagery and obscure references to mythology and world travel. The intention of some songs could be construed to send the listener reaching for a dictionary, as Darnielle sounds somewhat like a bored college student.
Yet more often the songs are, at their worst, over-written love songs and, at their finest, amusing and witty pieces about the familiar pining and lure of a lonesome guy. In Masher, from his new album, Darnielle sings of language deficiency and woodland creatures: "Most of the things I used to hold on to / most of the thins I used to say to you / most of the ways I knew around the local roads / are disappearing daily." In Cubs in Five, a sarcastically hopeful song, John vows not to fall in love again until a convergence of unlikely events, the highlight of which is a World Series victory for the Chicago baseball team.
As his parting shot, the Mountain Goats played a tribute (The Sign) to European dance music, and long term music contracts. Darnielle explained before ending the concert that the Ace of Base saga is one of the truly tragic stories of our time. Two minutes later, he had a crowd of bespectacled college students waving their arms back and forth tot he melody. After the concert, while fans circled the now embarassed looking Darnielle, someone commented that the show had been just like a Ray Bradbury short story: "Moving but wonderful." Slowly, the crowd dispersed towards home, back to their bedrooms.