Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Heretic Pride - The Mountain Goats

Heretic Pride

The Mountain Goats
4AD Records.

SCQ Rating: 68%

To be a Mountain Goats fan, you must be a John Darnielle fan. The sole artist of both lyrics and vocals, Darnielle is the heart of every Mountain Goats song, delivering lyrics no one else can with that signature voice. ‘Sax Rohmer #1’ sets a buoyant mood early, as he announces “I’m coming home to you/ if it’s the last thing that I do.” It’s a powerful opener that’s bested quickly by the title track, which featuring John Vanderslice on synths, is as invigorating as the Mountain Goats get. On the other hand, ‘So Desperate’ is the thick silence of a dead engine with the windows up, trying to find words for a girl but failing – not out of fear but anticipation. This expectation of fortune in life and love is what drives Heretic Pride, that urgency to hold onto precious moments before they pass.

When a band member becomes the figurehead of their band like Darnielle has, he largely becomes responsible for what songs work and what doesn’t. As divisive as it is nasally, Darnielle’s voice undoubtedly suits the Mountain Goats’ more folk-infused material (2006’s Get Lonely was pitch-perfect for this very reason) better than their occasional electric numbers, where he strains to match their volume. And while he holds his own in the raucous ‘Lovecraft in Brooklyn’, it spotlights that one evident obstacle for new Mountain Goats listeners to hurdle. Where his voice may uninspire some, Darnielle’s bandleader position is justified is his lyrical fortitude, as each song on Heretic Pride presents the same quality songwriting as previous efforts that no other band could duplicate.

What makes the Mountain Goats such a unique band is that Darnielle’s talents don’t render his fellow musicians to backing-band status. Since the story-arch of each song is so typically unique, the band employs small sonic flavours to compliment the lyrical tone; like ‘Tianchi Lake’, a soft acoustic meditation that is emboldened by reflective tinkering piano. In other instances, the band supplies gorgeous accompaniment such as the cinematic ‘San Bernardino’, where a string arrangement carries a first-person account of pulling into a motel to deliver their child in a bathtub; each emotion from fear to joy is fluttering to Darnielle’s tale, recorded with the crystal clarity we’ve come to expect from 4AD.

Despite a variety of arrangements, Heretic Pride can’t shake off its stagnant low points; both the reggae-stalemate ‘Sept 15 1983’ and the forgettable easy listening of ‘New Zion’ welcome the skip button. In an album of mid-tempo full-band folk songs, these dull passages drag our attention-span to the edge of boredom, but luckily, the aforementioned highlights balance these weaker songs enough to minimize damage to the album at large. ‘Michael Myers Resplendent’ serves Heretic Pride best, showcasing all the drama that would be clunky in the hands of any other lyricist or band. Here, it’s an eloquent close to a frequently beautiful record; the kind that compliments the Mountain Goats catalogue without becoming the envy of it.

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