2003 (posted 7 may)
Wow. Where to begin? Things change so much this year. I know I probably sound absurdly hyperbolic at this point, but this period of tMG history (2002–04) is my absolute favorite.
What a superb album. The title track is deceptively simple. The more I listen to it, the more I enjoy it. Also, there is some cool spookiness surrounding very quiet words in the background of the song, so that is fun. I never get tired of the segue from the end of Tallahassee into First Few Desperate Hours... and the rest of First Few Desperate Hours. This is definitely my favorite song on the album.
I still remember the first time I heard No Children. It was in the best possible way, in context of the album as a whole. After the album was finished, I remember thinking "that one song with the piano was very memorable". The thing I love best about No Children is that it is a genuinely great song. It is not just that novelty song that people love shouting for at shows; it stands on its own as a great song.
I always marvel at the words to International Small Arms Traffic Blues. Don't we all? "Our love is like the border between Greece and Albania / Trucks loaded down with weapons / Crossing over every night / Moon yellow and bright // There is a shortage in the blood supply / But there is no shortage of blood / The way I feel about you baby, can't explain it / You've got the best of my love". It's beautiful. Followed by Have to Explode, the best fall-asleep kind of tMG song
Old College Try. One of the most romantic-feeling tMG songs in existence. And so jamming. Arguably some of PPH's best bass playing.
I'm amazed at how sedate most of these recordings are when I consider that virtually every song from this album has been turned into a rocking jam when played live. It's a testament to John's enduring songwriting. I have at least two bootlegs of every single song from Tallahassee, which I think is some kind of record. This album is very special.
The See America Right EP has two excellent excellent excellent songs, New Chevrolet in Flames and Design Your Own Container Garden. The former of these, especially, has some extremely good lyrics. It's like a more upbeat version of Dilaudid. Also, it has a drum machine, I think? It's an odd sound. And Design Your Own Container Garden has a very nice melody.
In a way, my bootlegs from this year feel very "current". Listening to the very old stuff, it's clear that it is old and that John is not a mature performer. But the 2003 stuff I have feels very up-to-date; at one point in my listening I had to check and see if I was indeed listening to something from 2003. From here onwards we are in present-day bootleg territory.
Live at Mo'Fo Festival, Paris, France: John plays the only recording I have of "Scavenger Babies", which is wonderful: "the city of Norwalk in my dreams / rises like Atlantis from a watery grave / burn the things you have to burn / save all the people you're supposed to save"
At the Mercury, Austin, Tex., John plays my favorite version of Waco, a superb song about Christians waiting for Jesus to return. A personal favorite. For the encore at that show, he plays 2/3 Jim's Head by some band called The Baptist Generals. It is a really kooky song which John helped explain on the forums, with some fun lines such as "return to my covenant lest I smite thee with a curse".
At a show in Will's Pub, Orlando, Fl., John introduces the fantastic Terror Song (a Furniture Huschle) by saying "I didn't write this song, neither did Neil Tennant." John also interjects the phrase "orange alert!" before the last chorus, which is a nice touch.
At an unknown venue in Springfield, Ill., John plays Terror Song followed by another Furniture Huschle song, Furniture Store. He begins the song by saying "I want you to go into that special place in your mind where all the spiders live. And I want you to say to the spiders, 'I love you'. And I want you to hear the spiders saying back 'we're spiders, how can we respond to that? let us work! let us work!'"
2004 (posted 14 may)
This year we have the superb LP We Shall All Be Healed, and some singles that go along with the album.
We Shall All Be Healed
Another winner. tMG's first LP produced by John Vanderslice. And the first tMG LP to be (at least partially) autobiographical. I love that the overarching theme of meth addiction informs so much about the album: its grungy production, the songs' harsh, frank, and sometimes inane lyrics, John's frequently frenzied and tormented guitar playing, and many more details I can't even think of. Its cohesiveness is staggering.
This was the second 4AD tMG album I heard, the first being Get Lonely. And this was the first album to really pull me in.
Slow West Vultures is a good album opener. Not as rocking as First Few Desperate Hours, but still very exciting. It sets the mood of the album: KINDA WONKY. But still great.
I was never crazy about Palmcorder Yajna until I heard about a hundred live recordings of it, which reformed my original opinion. PPH's harmony and bass-playing totally kill. And the lyrics are wonderful: "send somebody out for soda / comb through the carpets for clues / reflective tape on our sweatpants / big holes in our shoes".
Linda Blair Was Born Innocent: the strings on the chorus MAKE IT. Letter From Belgium probably has my favorite lyrics of the whole album. The dry, straightforward way the words are sung... ah! so great. "Susan and her notebook / freehand drawings of Lon Chaney / blueprints for geodesic domes / recipes for cake!"
I love John's strumming pattern on The Young Thousands. And the crowd-of-Johns backup vocals on the chorus. Very, very good. Your Belgian Things is beautiful; what more is there to say? The piano has such a nice, warm quality to it. (Speaking of that: who's playing piano there, I wonder?) And the bass is seriously understated. Like, you can't really hear it at all on certain speakers.
Mole is very good. You wouldn't expect it, but Mole was one of the songs that most stuck out to me on my first listen of this album. The syncopated lyrics are extremely fun to sing while stomping a beat. "I came to see you up the-ere in intensive care." Ian can attest this is one of my favorite songs to sing while walking at summer camp, with kids trailing behind me.
Home Again Garden Grove! Ah! This was the other song that I loved from my first listen. It's classic Mountain Goats. Just enough harmony vocals, like a tiny dash of salt put into a delicious stew. My two least favorite songs on the album, All Up The Seething Coast and Cotton, surround Quito, which is great on the album but way better live.
Against Pollution is probably my favorite song on the album. The chorus is clearly inspired by Joel 2: "And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions." And it is really nicely nuanced. Hopeful, but not boisterous. A very unique sort of mood.
And then we have Pigs That Ran Straightaway Into the Water, Triumph Of to close out the album. Short, peppy, and titled based on a biblical allusion. This is how you make a Mountain Goats record, ladies and gentlemen.
I really love Beat the Devil, which appears on a compilation album called Hope Isn't a Word. John's vocals are mixed in an interesting way, and his performance is top-notch. I like the words, too: "we stash it in between some bales of lumber / on flatbeds coming in from Colorado / I don't know what you're doing back in Memphis / all winter you've been incommunicado." Is that a melodica I hear? I suppose I should also mention Attention All Pickpockets, which seems to be an enormous fan favorite, though I'm not sure why. It's ok, but I've never been crazy about it. The thing I like best, again, is John's delivery of the lyrics.
John plays Rockin' Rockin' Pet Store at Magic Stick, Detroit, Mich., which is pretty cool. (The only other recording I have of this song is from 1992!)
At Magic Stick and the EARL (Atlanta, Ga.), John plays the Furniture Huschle song Orange, which is really nice and peaceful. In the encore of that EARL show, John Vanderslice comes onstage and plays I Miss The War and JD sings backup. And his backup is fabulous, as you can imagine.
The recording of Jam Eater Blues from the Village Tavern, Mt. Pleasant, S.C., is the best I've heard, hands-down.
2005 (posted 21 may)
There's some really good stuff this year, guys. I'm not as crazy about The Sunset Tree as most people, I guess, but it's a great album nonetheless. It's harder to hear John Vanderslice’s influence in the production of this album. I like the instrumentation very much, but I’ve never loved the production. It’s definitely musically denser and richer than WSABH, but I think some charming idiosyncrasy was lost in the transition. Certainly, this album is much more enjoyable when heard through headphones.
The Sunset Tree
You or Your Memory begins so brilliantly, with just JD's vocals. That is such a great way to start the record. Throughout the song, piano, drums, guitar all work very well together. No complaints. The swift transition to Broom People is always highly enjoyable to hear.
Broom People. Does this song emotionally affect everyone, or is it just me? It’s hard for me to put my feelings into words… but this is definitely one of my absolute favorites. FACT: The little piano bits in this song remind me a lot of the little piano bits in Dancing Queen. Yes? anyone?
I love listening to the studio version of This Year because I'm so much more familiar with live versions. John's harmony parts are really great on this recording. The studio version of this song reminds me that it’s not just a great song for the end of a concert, it’s just a great song. I absolutely love the way the handclaps get ever so slightly more audible as the song progresses.
Dilaudid is, of course, a great and beautiful song, but it's always seemed way overproduced to me. John's vocals don't seem to mesh with the cello. Yes? anyone?
Dance Music is a stellar example of John's songwriting. Reminds me very much of Genesis 3:23. Like, I picture the living room with the Watergate hearings as the same place where there are "pictures up on the mantel / nobody I know". The song is rich in its descriptiveness.
Dinu Lipatti's Bones is one of my favorites: the subtle buzz throughout the whole song; the extremely selective elements of piano; the unwavering falsetto. I know some people find this song cold or sterile, but I’ve never thought of it like that. If anything, I’d say this song is intimate and comfortable.
Up the Wolves! Yes! I think I remember John saying that PPH liked the words and pretty much wrote the melody for this by himself. It's a great one. There's something so great about the transition from Dinu Lipatti's Bones... the guitar in this song sounds so warm and cheerful in comparison. And WHAT is up with that electric keyboard sound? I'd love to know what JV was thinking with that... it sounds almost ironic. (dare I refer to Genesis 3:23 again!?) I love the background vocals, too, in which you can distinctly hear both JD and PPH. Really well done.
Lion's Teeth. The strings I love the strings in this one. You'd think including those powerful string hits would sound too poppy, but I don't think it has that vibe at all. It's so great. I have been spoiled, though, listening to live versions of this song where John's vocal delivery is much more energetic and exciting. The album version sounds laid-back in comparison.
Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod? is the best song on the album! Where do I begin? That thumping bass drum is so great and energetic. The Hammond-y organ is perfect here. The way it sort of billows up above the guitar then falls back into the mix reminds me of the ocean. I can’t imagine it fitting into the song better than it does. The bass is easy to overlook, but also very well-done. What is the odd sound in the left channel right after John says “I am gonna wriggle up on dry land”? Oh, did I mention this song has extremely good lyrics? “and then I'm awake and I'm guarding my face / hoping you don't break my stereo / because it's the one thing that I couldn't live without / and so I think about that and then I sorta black out.”
Magpie is great if only for its use the mandolin. I can’t help but wish Wurster was around at this point, because I know he would have done the percussion better. The mandolin solo is killer. This is such a spooky song, though. I haven’t read much about what it means. Interesting.
Song for Dennis Brown has grown on me more and more since I first heard it. I think I started loving it when I heard bootlegs of it from the fall 2009 tour, when it got turned into a kind of slow power ballad. This recording is a little tougher to get into because it’s more straightforward. There is a weird vocals reverb in the left channel. What are you doing to me, JV?! The second acoustic guitar that comes in panned stereo-left is really great and warm. I FORGIVE YOU, JV. These lyrics are some of my favorites: “and the stench was overbearing / but they were past the point of caring”.
Love Love Love. Yes! The guitar sounds so good in this song. The recording of John’s voice is so so so good! It’s like he’s whispering right into my ear. You can hear when he purses his lips together and stuff. It’s so good. The pounding drum is a nice touch, as are the distorted piano and strings. The vocals are panned slightly left and the guitar slightly right; I love the bold way in which it’s done. It could be rather jarring but I think it works really well in this case. Though I think Tetrapod is the best song from 2005, this is definitely the best recording produced. Just fantastic.
Pale Green Things. Naturally, the cello is wonderful; it’s an essential part of the song instead of a decoration, and I like that about it. I don’t have much else to say about this one. It’s solid.
The Dilaudid EP has a fantastic full-band version of Collapsing Stars. And by full-band, I mean, “Erik Friedlander is amazing". The rhythm of that song is fantastic (and reminds me a lot of Autopsy Gas Mask in the way the vocals are very syncopated). Another great thing is the Porcile song from the Esopus #5. It's got a very vintage tMG sound.
I suppose most of this section should be devoted to Come, Come to the Sunset Tree, an album almost as valuable and wonderful as The Sunset Tree itself. Favorite parts: Up the Wolves! The alternate lyrics on Dinu Lipatti's Bones! High Doses #2! But the best song on the album is The Day the Aliens Came. I can see why it wasn't included on TST, but gosh that is a great song. I love the chord progressions on this one.
The recording from Fuel Rocket Club, Hanover, N.J. is one of my all-time favorites. This is from when tMG toured with The Prayers and Tears of Arthur Digby Sellers, and the opening band joins them on a number of songs, greatest of which are Pet Politics (the Silver Jews cover) and Against Pollution. Oh boy. I'm pretty sure that is the greatest recording of Against Pollution in existence.
Northsix, Brooklyn, N.Y! John Vanderslice! Erik Friedlander! Shearwater! This show is amazing! The recording of Going to Cleveland is superb. As usual, PPH's bass-playing and bgvs take it up another notch. John improvises a bit with the lyrics and melody and makes a great performance of a very simple song. Shearwater joins tMG on Quito and it sounds really great. Perhaps the best part, though, is Your Belgian Things with Erik Friedlander and John Vanderslice. Go listen to this show!
On a live set on KEXP radio, John plays Deianara Crush, which is a pretty big deal. It sounds weird without Rachel.
2006 (posted 28 may)
2007 is probably the most atypical year in tMG chronology, at least as far as music is concerned. Get Lonely is, of course, a really unique album in the tMG canon because it’s so quiet and cold. The quiet vibe continues into the bootlegs I have from this year. Get Lonely was the first tMG album I ever heard (being the newest one), and consequently I listened to it a lot during those first few months of becoming a tMG fan. It was not a “Get Lonely” kind of time in my life, though, so I don’t have the kind of connections to this record that others do.
I don’t have a lot to say about each song on this album because there is a lot less variety in instrumentation. The majority of the album is JD on guitar, PPH on bass, and Erik on cello, with an occasional bit of percussion or piano. The songs on this album sound so unified, they sound like they could have been all recorded at once, in a row. It’s not as exciting to listen to as, say, TST, but it gives the album a very cohesive feel. It puts the emphasis on the songs instead of the production.
And we start out with a great song: Wild Sage. I don’t really know what this one is about, but that doesn’t stop me from liking the song. The lyrics appear to be a straightforward story: “walk down the soft shoulder and I count my steps / headed vaguely eastward, sun in my eyes / and I lose my footing and I skin my hands, breaking my fall / and I laugh to myself and look up at the skies”, like Source Decay or Ox Baker Triumphant. This song is followed quickly by New Monster Avenue. Percussion is fantastic. It gives me great pleasure to imagine PPH and Scott Solter pounding out that beat. And nice falsetto, JD.
Half Dead. Oh man, I love this song. I’d say this is definitely the “best” song on the album. Some of John’s catchiest lyrics ever. It’s ironic such a catchy song appears on this, the most sedate of all tMG albums. This song is even greater live, especially with Wurster’s drumming and PPH’s backup vox on the chorus. It’s a pity this song hasn’t been played much since the GL tour.
Get Lonely. I can dig it, but it’s always felt a bit too brooding for me. And after Get Lonely we enter into a chunk of songs which are all pretty slow and all sound similar. In case you can’t tell, I still have not come to grips with the track ordering.
Maybe Sprout Wings: I get a real 1 Samuel 15:23 vibe from this one. Nice vocals. Moon Over Goldsboro: Some of my favorite cello on this one. The shimmery-sounding electric guitar is also really nice. Also: the phrase “I was trying to sever the tether”. In the Hidden Places: The bass! so great. And John’s guitar-playing is remarkably good. Song for Lonely Giants. The piano chords are my favorite part of this song. Good job, Franklin! Refreshingly short and simple lyrics.
And then we come to Woke Up New, the first tMG song I ever heard. Actually, I saw the music video for this song. The thing I remembered most about the song and video were: 1) John’s amazing falsetto, 2) John’s amazing white tennis shoes, and 3) that dang fine bassist. I think it’s the tennis shoes that enticed me to find out more. And the song itself is fabulous. Whereas the cello is a bit restrained up to this point, I think Friedlander really lets go on this song and it is so satisfying. I’ve always considered this song the high point of the album—does everyone feel this way?
If You See Light. The bass! and the organ! and the funky percussion! Oh, this is such a good song. When I first listened to this album, I’d always play Wild Sage, then skip to Woke Up New and go straight into this one. It’s great.
Cobra Tattoo. I didn’t think it was possible for John’s vocals to be even more whispery, but here we go! The fret noise and electric guitar and cello play off each other really nicely here. Love the biblical allusions, especially “higher than the stars / I will set my throne / God does not need Abraham / God can make children from stones”. Classic 30-second tMG outro.
In Corolla. This song is a great parallel to Wild Sage and it closes out the album really well. I don’t claim to know what this song is about, short of it involving death at the seashore. It resembles Wild Sage sonically as well as thematically. Very good ending.
And the Japanese version of this album has three bonus tracks, best of which is Keeping House, a very upbeat Get-Lonely-sounding tune. It’s almost a paradox! I used to love the horns, but I’ve since become quite tired of them. I think it’s Franklin’s piano that really shines here. I’ll say it again: GOOD JOB, FRANKLIN!
The only other tMG release this year is Babylon Springs, which is a great little Australian-only EP. It has a similar vibe to Get Lonely, but the songs are more in the vein of John’s older stuff: more character-focused, more eclectic. Ox Baker Triumphant is a fantastic song about a professional wrestler/monster that would fit nicely on Heretic Pride. Everybody loves the cover of Sometimes I Still Feel The Bruise but I’ve never been too crazy about it. The production is kinda wild here: busy and nondescript. Not bad but not nearly as good as Get Lonely. I’d love to hear more about the instrumentation and production of this record; that info is pretty scant!
As I mentioned, this is a year characterized by its quietness. Get Lonely is a quiet record, and my concert bootlegs from 2006 seem to be equally quiet. This does not mean they are boring, though.
Bottom of the Hill, San Francisco, Calif.: John explains that due to sickness, he cannot strain his vocal chords and must sing very softly. And so the vibe of the whole show is very soft and peaceful. The atmosphere is perfect for John to play a lot of the quiet songs from Get Lonely. When John plays [track artist=the Mountain Goats]No Children mid-way through the set, he doesn’t sing any vocals at all and the audience picks up the slack remarkably. It is fabulous. John Vanderslice comes onstage to take the lead on Your Belgian Things, which is also very good. The setlist has some great old songs, including Going to Monaco, Running Away With What Freud Said, and The Lady From Shanghai. The peaceful rendition of Houseguest is extremely great and John plays tambourine and it is awesome. But John’s almost-whispered performance of Whole Wide World is perhaps my favorite of the whole set.
Club Europa, Brooklyn, N.Y. is another great show. Erik Friedlander joins the band to play cello on Dilaudid, Cobra Tattoo, Moon Over Goldsboro, and In the Hidden Places. But the best part is Franklin Bruno joins the band to play piano on nearly half of the set: [track artist=the Mountain Goats]Song for Lonely Giants, You or Your Memory, From TG&Y, No Children, This Year, and Houseguest. Bruno’s piano accompaniment is uniquely great, and this is especially obvious during No Children. Bruno’s playing has a je ne sais quoi about it.
John plays a solo Get-Lonely-release-party show at Easy Street Records, Seattle, Wash., and his excellent set includes a cover of One Fine Day.
At the 40 Watt Club, Athens, Geo., tMG plays with Perry Wright, who adds superb harmony vocals on Song for Dennis Brown, Elijah, The Monkey Song, and Against Pollution. Perry has a great voice that reminds me a bit of John Roderick’s and he really contributes a lot to the songs. I was a little upset that Perry didn’t sing at all when he rejoined tMG for their fall 2009 tour. This recording is a superb soundboard-audience matrix, and it has a special place in my heart for being one of the first tMG bootlegs I ever collected.
At Pitzer College, Claremont, Calif., John is joined by none other than Rachel Ware! This show’s highlights are pretty much every song she sings on: Love Love Love, Going to Kansas, Going to Queens, and Prana Ferox. This is such a great show, and a perfect blend of new and old tMG. It reminds me how much I miss Rachel. The fantastic set finishes with a stellar performance of My Favorite Things! The last thing John says is “all my songs used to end like this!” as he strums wildly. Perfect.
Soft Targets on KEXP! That is all.
2007 (posted 5 jun)
Not a lot going on this year. We’re in the stretch of time between Get Lonely and Heretic Pride. Certainly, the highlight of this year is Zoop! More on that later.
Hail and Farewell, Gothenburg
I thought I’d take a minute to discuss Hail and Farewell, Gothenburg, since this album was leaked on the internet some time late 2006 or early 2007. John has played a number of the songs live in the 17 years since HaFG was recorded: Hello, Old Rabbit, Four New Trees, I Love You. Let’s Light Ourselves on Fire, Milk Song, Ghosts, and Crane. These are all great and I advise you to check them out. My particular favorite of the bunch is Milk Song, whose lyrics always become stuck in my head: “in the balance sheet I’d been keeping in my mind / I entered two hundred kronur to the left of the debit line / it was what the machine had cost me / it was a greater loss than I could bear / I hear the wheels and knobs whirring down to this very day / long after the ocean has washed it all away”. Also worth noting is John’s masterful cover of You’re so Vain, where he leaves out the chorus. I really wish he’d sing that live.
John released a number of tracks online this year. the demo for No Children, and a recording of From TG&Y, which is apparently fully-produced and from the Heretic Pride sessions, left off the album because it did not fit thematically. It is a superb recording and very Sunset Tree-like. Also, a very lo-fi recording of Counting Song for Bitter Children, which is originally from the mid-90s. Good stuff.
At the Slowdown in Omaha, Neb., tMG plays a full-band version of Soft Targets, which is worth the price of admission alone. John plays an electric guitar that is particularly great. This is followed by a full-band, electric-guitar’d version of Orange Ball of Hate, which is equally fantastic.
The Bowery Ballroom show from this year is one of my absolute favorites. I don’t link to every bootleg I discuss, but seriously, this is one you should go download. This bootleg has got some really good performances of rarities such as Tulsa Imperative and [track artist=the Mountain Goats]The Coroner’s Gambit, and a really rocking version of Pure Milk which owes everything to PPH’s background vocals. Also of note: pre-Heretic Pride versions of How to Embrace a Swamp Creature and In the Craters on the Moon, both great, and my favorite ever performance of Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod. LISTEN TO THAT BASS. I love you, PPH.
At an in-store concert at Rhino Records, Claremont, Calif., Franklin Bruno joins JD to play some The Extra Glenns tunes, including How I Left the Ministry and Programmed Cell Death. These two songs sound remarkably similar to the studio versions that were eventually recorded in 2011. In other words: they sound really really good!
The first Daytrotter session was recorded this year! and we are introduced to a number of unique songs. The lyrics of Pinklon, a song about real-life boxer Pinklon Thomas, are some of my favorite: “let the guys all hurry on down to the gym / and throw the doors wide open and clear a space for him / let messages from strangers spray-painted on cheap drapes / hang from all the fire escapes / let them spell out on marquees and on window displays / Pinklon Thomas is getting out of prison today”. Also included is Ethiopians, an outtake from the Tallahassee era. It’s unequivocally one of the greatest tMG songs, I think. John’s renditions of Red River Valley and Babylon Burning are also really nice, taking comparatively simple songs and dressing them up with really great performances.
And last but not least: Zoop! I don’t want to say too much about Zoop, since I was not there and it would be utterly foolish for me to try to write about such a great and special event without experiencing it. But the little glimpse of Zoop from the concert recordings tells me it was really, really cool. The first time I ever heard California Song was from this Zoop recording, where the audience sings along with John. It was a landmark moment in my fandom. I remember thinking, who are these people? and why does this concert sound more like some friends having a sleepover than an actual concert? It was really this recording that prompted my desire to collect more.
California Song is not the only great recording from Zoop, though. Also worth mentioning: Alpha Rats Nest, Leaving Home, Attention All Pickpockets, Store, Solomon Revisited.
2008 (posted 2 jul)
2008 was a year with lots of releases. Heretic Pride, Satanic Messiah, and Black Pear Tree, plus a bunch of other stuff. This is also the first year Jon Wurster appears on tMG studio material (and oh, what an addition he is!). Before I begin, I should mention the fantastic illustrated liner notes that Jeffrey Lewis produced for the album. I always enjoy reading along while I listen, and maybe you will too.
It's been about three and a half years since Heretic Pride was released! In that intervening time, people's opinions about HP seem to have settled at a pretty low level. Most people rank it as the one of the worst 4AD albums. Though it's definitely not my favorite, I think it has some great songs and some good production. All in all, a necessary step in tMG's maturation.
Sax Rohmer #1 is a decent album opener, and one of the best songs on the album. Great lyrics. The instrumentation always seemed too spare to me, like there aren't enough instruments included or something. This motif continues throughout the album (or at least, it seems that way to me). The song really comes into its own after the second chorus, when the bass becomes more pronounced and John's vocals seem surer.
I love San Bernardino. It gets a lot of disrespect, but I'm not sure why, because it is a great song coupled with extremely great cello-playing. It's not just a canned string section; there is serious The strummed chorus part, and the high-pitched string whine when John sings "San Bernardino welcomes you". And I remember John saying that his vocals were recorded live with one of the cello parts, which is pretty cool. My only complaint is that John's vocals are delivered too loudly and straightforwardly. They are too much like Dilaudid when they should be more like Love Love Love, if you will.
Heretic Pride is good. I don't really know what else to say. It's solid. Autoclave is superb. It's pretty poppy, but not in a bad way. Annie Clark's background vocals are really nice. The hints of cello throughout are so cool. Also, JW's drumming sounds fantastic. As in, the way it's recorded and mixed sounds so so nice. In general, this is the first track on the album whose production I'd say I love.
Then New Zion. The swingy organ is really cool. I love the lyrical mention of Melchizedek. The guitar sounds are really nice here; especially right after the first chorus. Give her a closer listen.
So Desperate is a pretty good song, but kinda boring when it's just JD solo. The album version is actually really really nice, thanks to Friedlander's excellent cello, but I've listened to enough live recordings without Friedlander to be a little tired of this one. Does it really only last 3:21?
In the Craters on the Moon and Lovecraft in Brooklyn are both solid songs, but I question their consecutive placement on the album. They're both kinda full-bandy and rocking, and while I enjoy both of them, I'm not crazy about the way they sound.
Tianchi Lake. YES, HERE WE GO. I love this song. Here are the quiet, intimate JD vocals I've been waiting to hear. And they work so well on this song. Peter is playing an upright bass here, which is awesome. Overall this is one of the album's strongest songs.
How to Embrace a Swamp Creature is another great song. I remember being excited to hear this album version of the song after hearing simpler live versions. It's ridiculously catchy and great. The drums make a weird sound in the interlude after the chorus. (what is that?) The cello is great, the and organ is pretty good. The Bright Mountain Choir's "ooh-ooh-ooh"s are hard to get used to, but they seriously are vintage tMG, so that makes me like them. While all the other musical craziness is going on, Peter's bass line holds the whole song together.
Marduk T-Shirt Men's Room Incident. The vocals really make this song for me. John sounds fantastic, as does the girl choir. It sounds like there is a double bass at the end of this song, too, especially at the end, and it is really great. Sept 15 1983 is also great. Really successful use of sparse instrumentation here.
Michael Myers Resplendent is a killer closer to the album. The strings come off very successfully here, in part thanks to the really odd-sounding piano, which compliments them nicely. Not sure what else to say but "I spent eight hours in my makeup chair / waxed my chest and shaved off all my hair."
The bonus track Last Man On Earth is really good as well. The bridge of the song ("I will throw you across my shoulders…") is especially good, and has an especially good piano part.
October was a fantastic month for tMG! 9 oct saw the web-only release of Satanic Messiah, which is a great four-track EP. The first two songs, Sarcofago Live and Wizard Buys A Hat, are generally peppy and guitar-based. The last two songs, Satanic Messiah and Gojam Province 1968, are slower and piano-based. My favorite is Sarcofago Live, but all four are great… though I do tend to conflate the two piano songs.
Less than a week later, on 13 oct, Black Pear Tree was released. There isn't an official digital edition of the album; I have a vinyl rip with quite a bit of crackle. But this only adds to the experience. It's an odd little album. I don't consider it very cohesive, musically or lyrically, but your opinions may differ. My favorite songs are Mosquito Repellant, Roger Patterson Van, and Thank You Mario But Our Princess Is In Another Castle.
John did a second Daytrotter session this year; though the setlist isn't nearly as exciting as his first one, it's still a great listen. I particularly love the pared-down version of San Bernardino. 02-75 also sounds really good here. I have several versions of the song from around 2000 and it does not sound as polished.
John released Sign of the Crow 2 on the forums, which is a completely fantastic tune. John and Erik Friedlander appeared on the now-defunct public radio show Fair Game to play Surrounded. In february, to celebrate Super Tuesday, John appeared on another now-defunct public radio show, Weekend America, to perform the song [track artist=the Mountain Goats]Down to the Ark, which he had written specially for the election season. This is one of my favorite songs from the whole year; John plays piano instead of guitar, which gives it an interesting sound, and the lyrics are chillingly spooky. "Seal up the borders or let everybody in / in the order of the serpent, there’ll be neither left nor right / and we pull down our blindfolds / we reach out for the lever in the dark / get a sticker for our shirts as we head into the sun / proudly bearing the mark / headed down to the ark". It fits perfectly with the vibe of Satanic Messiah. Really fantastic.
When sickness caused John to call off an Australian tour, he released a collection of Get Lonely-era demos called seven for australia. My favorite from this is the excellent song going invisible which always emotionally affects me. "I'm going to break something today / and sweep all the pieces away." I also really like the guitar-y demo of If You See Light.
Bottom of the Hill, San Francisco, Calif., which tMG played only a few weeks after the release of HP, is a great show. The set opens with a fantastic performance of Michael Myers Resplendent. Other highlights are Sept 15 1983, which is even better live, a particularly vibrant version of Houseguest, and California Song.
There are a number of superb bootlegs from tMG's tour with Kaki King which occurred fall 2008. Foremost of which is the two nights tMG played at Webster Hall, New York, N.Y. (I prefer 9 nov, the second night.) Highlights include the set opener, Have to Explode, Mosquito Repellant, and San Bernardino (the lyrics of which John messes up midway through). The best part of the whole show, though, is John's fantastic solo performance of New Britain, a song for which I have already expressed my undying affection.
The real highlight of this year, though, is the show John played at Brooklyn Masonic Temple, Brooklyn, NY. It's a really unique solo set which includes no songs from Heretic Pride. John plays a bunch of rarely-heard stuff, including Transjordanian Blues, the then-unreleased Wizard Buys A Hat, Balance, Young Caesar 2000, The Last Day of Jimi Hendrix's Life, and Baboon.
2009 (posted 10 jul)
Spring 2009 gave us a tour with John Vanderslice and the collaborative album Moon Colony Bloodbath, and in november, tMG's final 4AD album, the Life of the World to Come, was released.
The Life of the World to Come
This album has a special place in my heart because it is the first tMG record for which I held a listening party, which is to say I introduced myself to the record being by playing it loudly on a good stereo system, sitting in the dark with tea and crackers. I cannot recommend this enough.
1 Samuel 15:23 is a truly good song, and a worthy album opener. That said, it's a very ominous opening track, imposing and uninviting. When I am in the right mood, it's just the perfect way to begin this unusual album. But at other times it discourages me from playing this album, in a way Sax Rohmer #1 or Damn These Vampires couldn't do.
Psalms 40:2 is another great track. I'd heard the song played live from a 2008 bootleg, and it was a real surprise to hear how aggressive the studio treatment had made it. It's compelling and wonderful, and unique.
Genesis 3:23 is another good song. I definitely didn't appreciate this one at first: the monotony of the chorus lyric struck me as unimaginative and the electronic keyboard seemed cheesy. I don't think I really appreciated this song until I heard it played live, when two things stood out to me: Jon Wurster's fantastically good drumming, which really carries the song, and John's excellent delivery of the lyrics. The bridge "fight through the ghosts in the hallways / duck and weave / stand by the door with my eyes closed / when it's time to leave" is my favorite part.
Philippians 3:20-21. The piano is the most compelling part of this track. And the lyrics, which I think really make the song great. "the path to the awful room / that no one will sleep in again / was lit for one man only / gone where none can follow him // try to look down / the way he'd gone / back of a closet / whose steps go on and on and on" (is that last part a reference to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe?)
We now enter into what I like to think of as the meaty middle part of the record. The next three songs Hebrews 11:40, Genesis 30:3, and Romans 10:9 are my three favorite songs on the album. Hebrews 11:40 has the most successful instrumentation we've heard yet on the album. The piano and strings mesh beautifully with the guitar, and John's voice sounds superb. This is perfect end-of-fall music.
Genesis 30:3 is absolutely beautiful, and, I think, the most successful and affecting of all the "solo JD" songs on the album. I love the way John takes a petty incident from the book of Genesis and turned it into a romantic moment. The rhythm of the lyrics is just stupendous: "I saw his little face contract as his eyes met light / try to imagine anything so bright / you only see it once and it sails under the dawn / and then it's gone forever". That percussion, too. Woah.
And we are instantly thrown into Romans 10:9, an absolutely fantastic song. Many people seem to dislike this song, but their dislike seems to be all mixed up in their dislike of scripture itself, so we must not take their criticism too seriously. Even if the song's narrator is , as many have suggested, I still consider this song to be a fantastic and jubilant translation of the scripture into song. Regardless of the mental health of the speaker, the chorus line rings true: "if you will believe in your heart and confess with your lips / surely you will be saved one day". Alright, I'll stop rhapsodizing now.
The next three songs, 1 John 4:16, Matthew 25:21, and Deuteronomy 2:10, fall into a logical group: all three are John and basically one instrument, and all three are rather slow and melancholy. As I mentioned previously, I prefer Genesis 30:3 to any of these other three, but that doesn't mean these others aren't great.
1 John 4:16 has fantastic strings which add a lot of emotional punch. John's simple piano chords really impress me here as well. What can I say about the following song, Matthew 25:21? It's obviously a favorite of John's. It doesn't affect me the way many other tMG songs do, and I confess that the song bores me a little bit. The next song, Deuteronomy 2:10, is another solo-ish piano song whose vivid lyrics are very sad and memorable.
Isaiah 45:23 has a catchy chorus but rather dull verses. I'm not crazy about the sound of the guitar and the drums together, either. They are altogether too trebly. I've heard this song played live a few times, where it is performed at a faster tempo and PPH's bass is much more prominent, and this configuration is a lot better.
Ezekiel 7 and the Permanent Efficacy of Grace is a fantastic album closer, every bit as nonstandard as 1 Samuel 15:23 is as an album opener, and every bit as spooky. This track sounds so beautiful; I think it almost serves as a palate cleanser, erasing any negative opinions about the previous 43 minutes' worth of music. Something especially fun to do is to read Ezekiel 7 while listening to the track. The narrator of the song could be a poster-child for the phrase "Violence has grown up into a rod of wickedness". In summary: this is an unusual-yet-good closing track for an unusual-but-good album.
Two bonus tracks accompanied this album in its various incarnations. Enoch 18:14, the iTunes exclusive track, is good, but this particular recording really doesn't grab me. Proverbs 6:27, the Amazon MP3 exclusive track, is magnificent and wonderful in every way. The lyrics are interesting and poignant, and the instrumentation choices all seem completely great. Especially nice are JW's drums (especially especially the part around 2:03 where they build up emotion for the last chorus). ACE JOB, JON.
Most notable of 2009's other releases is The Life of the World In Flux, a companion album released with TLOTWTC containing lo-fi demos of (most of) the LP's songs. In summary: 1 John 4:16, Deuteronomy 2:10, and Matthew 25:21 are even more poignant in demo form. Isaiah 45:23 and Genesis 30:3 are solid, but lack the punchiness provided by the full band. Two songs, Psalms 40:2 and Romans 10:9, though, come across as fantastic old-school tMG recordings as they are. Hebrews 11:40 is especially nice and unique because of the simple multi-tracking.
TLOTWIF's four non-LP tracks, Daniel 12:8 (Third), Proverbs 6:27, Matthew 11:14-19, and Enoch 18:14, are all good and interesting and work very well as JD-solo tracks. The lyrics of Daniel 12:8 are great, in the same vein as Romans 10:9. Enoch 18:14, which felt a little vapid on first listen, is a real grower; I've come to appreciate it a lot. Matthew 11:14-19 is great if only for the line "Claude Rains in all his glory was not arrayed like these". Seriously, what is going on with those lyrics? The real standout on this album, though, is definitely Proverbs 6:27. The chorus: "I treat each crushing moment like a gift / and wait for the fog to lift" affects me every time. John's loose delivery of the lyrics on this demo version makes a nice counterpart to his more astringent performance on the studio version; I can't decide which style I prefer.
In the spring of 2009, JD embarked on the "Gone Primitive" tour with John Vanderslice, which produced a lot of good recordings (more on that later). On this tour was released Moon Colony Bloodbath, a fantastic seven-track EP. I would have liked to hear JV and JD singing together more, instead of taking turns, but otherwise I'm very pleased with the collaborative nature of the project. It feels like a real amalgamation of JD and JV's talents. My favorite songs are Surrounded and Emerging. Now would be a good time to mention the Moon Colony Bloodbath tMG forums project, which you should listen to.
John recorded a cover of East River Pipe's song Drug Life for Merge Records' 20th anniversary. The b-side "Casio version" of the song is a million times better than the guitar-driven version that was used.
Between spring's Gone Primitive tour with JV to the fall full-band tour, there are a lot of fantastic live recordings from 2009. But if you only listen to one, make sure it's february's Swedish American Music Hall, San Francisco, Calif. In this one-off solo show, John plays a really interesting mix of old and new tunes. The setlist is arranged vaguely alphabetically, which only adds to the unusualness of it. Highlights: Any Available Surface, Billy the Kid's Dream of the Magic Shoes, [track artist=the Mountain Goats]Elijah, Ghosts, Jenny, Store, and Young Caesar 2000. Seriously, give this show a listen. The recording quality is great, and John is in fantastic form.
In march, John played another excellent solo show at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, Washington, D.C., which includes a really great version of Proverbs 6:27 with a different chorus lyric. Also included are fantastic, polished performances of the old songs Going to Mexico and Hello Sarah. This concert also includes my absolute favorite performance of one of my all-time favorite tMG songs: Alpha Desperation March.
In august, at the "Durham, Be Easy" festival, John played a small set which includes a fantastic version of Going to Lebanon, a song which does not get played enough!
All the recordings from the fall 2009 tour are great. JD, PPH, and JW are joined by Perry Wright and Owen Pallett, who really add a lot to the full band songs. The best recordings from this tour come from nyctaper, and the best songs are Old College Try, Enoch 18:14, Going to Bristol, and Hand Ball, and Against Pollution.
Finally: the recordings from this year's Zoop are, of course, extremely enjoyable. Highlights from night 1 include a cover of The Hold Steady's Positive Jam, Keeping House, Azo Tle Nelli in Tlalticpac?, Song for the Julian Calendar, and Quetzalcoatl Is Born. Night 2 has even more gems: Love Cuts the Strings, Pure Heat, Ethiopians, and The Lady From Shanghai. The two best moments, though, are John's incredibly passionate performance of The Bad Doctor, and the triumphant audience-led recording of Weekend In Western Illinois. Zoop is a real treasure.
2010 (posted 18 jul)
2010 was a quiet year for tMG. The most exciting thing to come from this year was the announcement of tMG and the Extra Lens signing to Merge.
I'll take a minute to discuss The Extra Lens' album Undercard, which was released in october, only a few months after the Merge signing was announced. Whereas Mountain Goats albums usually only contain new, recently-written songs, this Extra Lens album has a couple tracks that were written as far back as the mid-90s. It's cool to finally hear them recorded properly, with mature, complex instrumentation.
Speaking of that: the instrumentation and production of this record is stupendous. Particularly in comparison to the Life of the World to Come, this record sounds earthy and gritty and dark. It's markedly different from tMG records in a number of ways: Martial Arts Weekend, John and Franklin's first LP together, featured songs written exclusively by John (much like a tMG album). But songwriting credits for Undercard are shared pretty evenly between John and Franklin. Another unique thing is Franklin's electric guitar, which sounds really nice.
My favorite song from the album is Cruiserweights, whose chorus "Cleveland, Ohio, 1985 / almost out of the woods, awake and alive" is a lesson on masterful minimalism in songwriting. Other favorites: How I Left the Ministry (how can you not love everything about it?), Some Other Way (so catchy!), In Germany Before the War (if only for the trippy accordion), Tug on the Line (which wins my award for most beautiful-sounding song on the record), and Dogs of Clinic 17 (a satisfyingly posi album closer with fantastic backing vocals).
In summary: an objectively fantastic album; definitely the best thing John and Franklin have done to date; a glorious way to kick off the Merge era.
The only other release from this year was a limited-edition dvd released on Record Store Day in april. It's a video of John performing all the songs from the Life of the World to Come, recorded in a single, continuous take. The performances are good, especially on the piano songs, but the real draw of this film is just watching John perform. Also: Rachel Ware makes everything better.
In may, John did a special solo concert to benefit breast cancer, where he played a set of mostly requests. The recording I have is incomplete and of very poor quality but I can't bring myself to throw it away because it contains a performance of Alpha Negative, which is one of my favorite songs from the cassette tape years. There is a bunch of other good stuff there, too. I'm holding out hope that a better-quality recording will eventually surface.
Most of my live recordings from this year are of the Extra Lens. These shows have a more laid-back vibe than tMG's, so they're an interesting change from tMG shows. The setlists are nicely eclectic. I particularly like their performances of Houseguest with Franklin on electric guitar, which is an interesting change from the usual bass accompaniment.
The highlight of this year, though, is the 74-minute accompaniment John provided for the silent film Sir Arne's Treasure. Featuring solo piano, solo guitar, and a full band consisting of John Vanderslice, Jamie Riotto, and Jason Slota, it is perhaps the most unique and beautiful live performance John has given to date. There are some previously-unheard songs, apparently modern inventions based on old Sweden-era lyrics. But even better are the familiar songs from Sweden and Hail and Farewell, Gothenburg reworked in new ways with the full band. Personal favorites are Milk Song, Prana Ferox, and Sept 16 Triple X Love! Love! Especially that last one. Wow.
2011 (posted 24 jul)
Well, friends, we have arrived at the present day, and therefore reached the end of this journaling project. I considered writing an in-depth review of All Eternals Deck, the LP released in march on Merge records, but I'm afraid I wouldn't do it justice just yet. Not enough time has elapsed for me to write about it authoritatively. So instead I will simply say: All Eternals Deck is a marvelous record, containing great songs, and recorded beautifully. A gem.
Live recordings from this year have been excellent and enjoyable. As usual, nyctaper has produced a number of fantastic bootlegs. And when tMG came to Columbus, I made my own recording of the show, which you can download for yourself. I can't wait to see what other treasures the second half of 2011 holds! and beyond!
And that's that! This project has been really enjoyable for me, and I hope it was worth reading every week! Most of all I hope I've been able to share my deep appreciation and affection for the Mountain Goats, who are a really special band. Stay tuned in this space for more journaling in the future, perhaps?