Tuesday, September 10, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1298: Mountain Goats

My apologies for my absence, gentle readers! I have been on holiday with Sheila in Portland, Oregon. We spent our days hunting through cool clothing stores and record stores and our nights taking in music and film. I also got some killer tour shirts.

Let’s stick with music here, since you will be able to read all about the rest of the trip over at Sheila’s excellent (and far more famous) blog here soon enough.

The first show we saw was Iron Maiden, which was one of my favourite bands as a teenager in the eighties. That show didn’t support an album, however, as was the case when I saw the Mountain Goats in Portland on Sept. 9. For a review of the show scroll down, but before you do – here’s a review of their newest studio album.

Disc 1298 is… In League with Dragons
Artist: The Mountain Goats

Year of Release: 2019

What’s up with the Cover? Artist Elton D’Souza brings us a serious Dungeons and Dragons vibe with this picture. Experienced Dungeon Masters will know from comparing the poor collection of sods walking on this cover against the terrifying presence of that massive blue dragon that this is what is known as a “not level appropriate” encounter. You will also know that blue dragons breathe lightning, not fire.

For all you D&D nerds out there that got those references…you’re welcome. I’m not just in league with music nerds, I’m sometimes also…in league with dragons.

How I Came to Know It: When this record came out I was already a big Mountain Goats fan, so this was just me buying the next album on faith.

How It Stacks Up:  I have nine Mountain Goats albums. “In League With Dragons” comes in at #6.

Ratings: 3 stars

The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle loves concept albums, so when I heard he would be doing a concept album around fantasy roleplaying games (RPGs to those of us willing to publicly admit knowledge of such things) I was pretty excited.

The resulting record is uneven, with some truly great stuff and other songs that are just OK. Either way, don’t expect a lot of songs about goblins or wizards. The song titles may suggest they’ll be replete with fantasy imagery (the title track, “Clemency for the Wizard King”) but the connection often ends there.

On his more recent concept albums Darnielle draws a much more direct line. “Beat the Champ” is filled with wrestling imagery, “Goths” captures his disaffected youth in both lyrics and musical style and the songs on “Transcendental Youth” sound like the kind of bitter self-doubt that poverty-stricken youth in Seattle would express. Here the connection is tangential at best, and trying to connect some of the titles to the narrative in the songs made my head hurt.

All is forgiven in the face of good music, however, and once I was over my preconceived notions of how I would do it, and instead allowed the songs to wash over me on their own terms, the experience improved.

Within the broader umbrella of indie pop, the Mountain Goats do a lot of style exploration. On “In League with Dragons” they opt for a mix of jazz-inspired horn and piano, and the insistent country strum of guitar that Darnielle often employs as the backdrop to his storylines.

The jazz portions can overdo it, such as the saxophone on “Younger” but for the most part Darnielle wisely lets a few runs trickle in here and there where the song allows for it, without pushing too much complexity into the melody. When done well, the piano reminded me favourably of the barroom reverie on early Tom Waits records.

Darnielle mixes in these shades of jazz with pedal steel and traditional acoustic guitar, creating something that is halfway between lounge singer and country troubadour. Then he puts his high tenor and poetic half-spoken delivery on top of the amalgam.

The songs here tend toward dark subjects, with drug use and quiet desperation featuring strongly. “Going Invisible 2” is a great example of the latter, a song with a soothing reverie built into is production that belies the anger and hopelessness of the narrator, singing “I’m going to burn it all down today”. Invisibility as a metaphor for being frustrated and forgotten isn’t a new idea, but it is handled well here.

On “Waylon Jennings Live!” Darnielle is a reminder that isolation can exist even when someone is surrounded by events.  The opening line sets the scene:

“Drunk at the Meskwaki casino
Right where God intended me to be
Looking up at the one man in this room
Who's handled more cocaine then me”

Lyrically, “In League with Dragons” is top-notch throughout. Musically it is good as well, although Darnielle sometimes sacrifices melody in favour of establishing mood through a song’s rhythm. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it caused my mind to drift when I wanted to be mindful to what he was saying. Maybe that was the point.

While I see this record as a step down compared against his other recent work, this is still a quality record, laden with raw emotion and honesty. I was hoping for more dragons, but that’s on me.

Best tracks: Passae 1975, Going Invisible 2, Waylon Jennings Live!,

The Concert: Monday, September 9, 2019: McMenamin’s Crystal Ballroom, Portland OR

My second show in four nights in Portland was a major shift in styles. On Friday night I had been part of 15,000 screaming fans at the Moda Center celebrating what was essentially Iron Maiden delivering a “greatest hits” extravaganza with a massive stage show and plenty of pyro.

The Maiden show was full of people my age, all avowed Maiden fans. Like a lot of metal shows, on the surface the crowd looked a bit rough, but there was a great feeling of community. I felt at home and at ease among fellow fans, met many of them and didn’t have a single bad experience in the process.

The Mountain Goats show was a totally different type of show. Around 1,100 dedicated fans, most 20 years younger than Sheila and I. These fans were chill urban hipsters ready for a show full of literary reference and introspective songs. I once again felt at home and at ease among fellow fans. Music is a great unifying experience, regardless of genre.

The Crystal Ballroom is a beautiful old venue, and Sheila and I had dinner at the conveniently attached pub restaurant. This ended up being a happy accident, as event staff come into the restaurant and pre-authorize any patron with a ticket to the show for priority seating.

As a result, we were able to get front row seats in the balcony of the “Over 21 only” section, with a brilliant view.

Lydia Loveless

The opening act was Lydia Loveless, an alt-country singer-songwriter with the rough-edged attitude of Nikki Lane or Lindi Ortega and the brassy heartfelt power of Patty Griffin. I didn’t know her well, but I’d checked her out on Youtube before we left. I liked what I heard enough to buy two of her albums at a Portland record store a couple of days prior.

Live, Loveless was excellent, and her voice filled the Crystal Ballroom, ringing off the walls with songs that featured heavy doses of heartache and hard-living. She also was apparently pretty funny, because the front rows of the audience down on the floor laughed several times. I didn’t, but that was only because of the noise of people talking further back that drowned out portions of her performance.

This was disappointing and frustrating, and a good reminder that if you are going to show up for the opening act you should take the time to listen. You may discover a new artist that you love in the process. If you aren’t inspired to discover new music, then honour the artist’s efforts with your attention and the even simpler goal of “don’t be rude”.

Mountain Goats

Picking up the buzz of the crowd before the show I got the impression there were a lot of serious Mountain Goat fans out there. I like them a lot myself (as noted above, I have nine albums) but I could sense there was some serious devotion here.

My instincts were confirmed when front man John Darnielle and the rest of the Mountain Goats hit the stage and the crowd erupted in a jubilant celebration bordering on the religious. As a Frank Turner fan, I know exactly what it is like to love a band’s live act this much. My reaction was a combination of happiness knowing it was going to be a great crowd and a bit of regret knowing I wasn’t yet at their level.

That quickly washed away, as the Mountain Goats launched into their set. Darnielle may look like an English Literature professor moonlighting at Open Mic night (down to the glasses and brown sport jacket), but he is no amateur. From the opening notes, he had the audience in the palm of his hand with a combination of frenzied energy, and heartfelt emotional delivery.

The show had good balance on all fronts. The talk vs. sing quotient was just right, with Darnielle engaging in a little banter, but not so much as to lessen the energy of the music.

They also balanced old vs. new material. I am a believer in the rule of thirds for any concert: one-third new material, one-third old favourites and one-third deep cuts. The Mountain Goats honoured this well, with well over half of the latest record played, and a number of serious crowd pleasers during which the audience sang back every lyric to Darnielle in perfect time (as a neophyte I only trusted myself to join in for the chorus).

As for the deep cuts, I only knew about 70% of the songs played so I am assuming they nailed that too. The Mountain Goats are known for adjusting their setlist a fair bit from show to show (as does Frank Turner) which is awesome and – like us Frank Turner fans – is one more encouragement to the die-hards that follow the band from show to show.

We’d heard that the sound in this venue could be a bit over-cooked, but I found it was solid. It was slightly bass-heavy for the first song, but the sound guy quickly adjusted on the fly.

I would go see the Mountain Goats again in a heartbeat – at the Crystal Ballroom or elsewhere. They’ve got a great catalogue to work with, the fans (outside of the few talkers at the back) are top-notch and they play both old and new songs alike with an infectious energy.

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