Friday, May 30, 2008

Ask and Ye Shall Receive

Doug complained in the previous post that I should have critiqued Heretic Pride instead of just soliciting opinions. You got me, Doug. I was remiss. Here you go:

My rule of thumb for good music is this: I listen to it a couple of times and then see what sticks in my head. If I'm hearing it in the shower in the morning, it's good.

That said, in my limited experience, a classic Mountain Goats song has at least one of three key characteristics: (1) a hilariously absurd premise, (2) beautiful and innovative lyrics, and (3) a catchy refrain encapsulating a pessimistic yet not hopeless world view.

For the first, think "Golden Boy," an ode to a particular brand of peanuts: "There are no pan-Asian supermarkets down in Hell, so you can't buy Golden Boy peanuts there."

For the second: "Held under these smothering waves, by your strong and thick veined hand, but one of these days I'm going to wriggle up on dry land."

For the third, think "I'm going to make it through this year, if it kills me" from "This Year" or "I'm coming home to you, with my own blood in my mouth" from "Sax Rohmer #1."

(By the way, I think that strictly following those criteria would make "No Children" the best Mountain Goats song ever. But I'm not sure I believe that.)

In my previous post, I said that I thought that parts of Heretic Pride were "kind of weird." In addition to that criticism, I would also add Doug's that several of the songs "sound pretty similar to earlier stuff." On the other hand, that includes several songs that I really like -- they may not be groundbreaking, but they're still good stuff. But there are also several songs that, upon first hearing, my reaction was "what is that?" For example, "In the Craters on the Moon" has a more wailing than I enjoy; there is more than one odd use of falsetto ("So Desperate" and "Michael Myer Resplendent"); and, as Doug also pointed out, "Marduk T-Shirt Men's Room Incident" may feature backup vocals more appropriate for a bad prom song. I think that some of the problem is due to the fact that I don't really know what the album is about. (Recent albums can be described fairly succinctly: The Sunset Tree is about John Darnielle's terrible childhood; Get Lonely is a breakup album; and Tallahassee is about a couple on the verge of divorce.) Without a sense that the album is going somewhere, it's harder to be patient when songs take chances.

Some notes on the songs themselves:

Do I really need to explain again how awesome "Sax Rohmer #1" is?

I kind of see "San Bernardino" to "So Desperate" as the easy listening section of the album. You might think that bad, but really it means I listen to this portion of the album more -- it's easy to listen to while working. "San Bernandino" is the kind laid back with plinky strings song that I'm not big on and that seems like it might fit right in with the last album, Get Lonely. A few songs in the album, like "New Zion," just slide by my consciousness, even while I'm listening to the album in order to blog about it. But I like "Heretic Pride" and I really like "Autoclave," which to me is a classic Mountain Goats song.

I admire "Lovecraft in Brooklyn," but I don't see what Doug sees in "Tianchi Lake." I prefer "How to Embrace a Swamp Creature." And although I feel like I should make a defense of "Sept 15 1983," I can't really articulate what I like about it.

Finally, "Michael Myers Resplendent" is indeed a song about the horror movie character or maybe the actor portraying him or maybe the victims in the movie. In addition, it's either brilliant or overwrought to the point of ridiculousness. I first thought it was the latter because there's a section where John Darnielle sings in a totally crazy and ridiculous falsetto. And, yet, I listen to it. A lot. By my own rule of thumb, it's good.

Regardless of any criticisms I've mentioned, I've been listening to the whole album obsessively which as an objective measure makes it better than 90% of the albums I have.


Douglas said...

Thanks Jackie, guilt tripping you is much easier than writing my own blog.

I agree that Tianchi Lake isn't a great song by itself, although I do like the imagery "Backstroking on the surface, moonlight on its face, Floats the Tianchi Monster, staring into space," and I particularly like the way it is sandwiched between "Lovecraft in Brooklyn" and "How to Embrace a Swamp Creature." Lovecraft starts with the hot and dirty city, then it's cool and calm in Tianchi, and finally back to hot, dusty "out of my element, I can't breathe" in Swamp Creature. It's like Sunday afternoon.

I agree about the "easy-listening" section of the album, but it's too easy. If I'm working I'll go through the whole first half of the album without recognizing the song changes.

Which other albums do you have? I haven't heard Golden Boy, but I have Tallahassee, Sunset Tree & Heretic Pride. I have heard good things about West Texas, but that's starting to be a lot of albums for me from one group.

Oh, and "No Children" is definitely up there...

Jackie said...

Doug - Do you have a non-work blog?

That's an excellent explanation of "Lovecraft in Brooklyn" to "How to Embrace a Swamp Creature." I'll have to think about that when I'm listening to the album again.

And I admit that if I'm working pretty hard, my ears will only perk up at "Autoclave."

Anyways, it turns out that we have the same albums. But I have a bunch of odd songs. There's some live and unreleased stuff at and I have tracks from Get Lonely, Nine Black Poppies, All Hail West Texas (Hail Satan!), and Ghana. And I'm in the camp that says that you can never have too much Mountain Goats (although I still have more sheer MB of Okkervil River, so I don't feel too disproportionate).

Douglas said...

I meant "writing my own blog" in a purely speculative sense.

And with Golden Boy I now have 178 MB of Mountain Goats to 174 MB of Okkervil. Not bad considering my first harddrive held 20MB.

Eugene said...

I guess I am a jaded listener. I can't get into any of the MG albums at all. I like some songs, chuckled at Golden Boy a lot, and maybe hum This Year once in a while. But that's it.

So I mostly went "Huh?!" with most of the Heretic Pride.

Jackie said...

Eugene - Huh. I would have thought that it was the other way around -- you aren't jaded enough to enjoy the MGs. Is there some other musical group you'd like me to write about endlessly on the blog? (Since it seems I take requests. Who knew?)

Jackie said...

And Doug - I didn't know you've been listening to Okkervil River. Sweet.

Eugene said...

Jackie : Hehe! Maybe you are right. I do think that Darnielle and MG are talented musicians, but they seem a little bit too self-absorbed to care about little things like not singing off-key ;).

Actually, as I was listening to Heretic Pride's 13 long tracks, I was reminded of Neil Stephenson : MG needs a good producer as much as Neil needs a good editor.

Since you are taking request, I'm going to ask for a review of Counting Crow's latest!

Jackie said...

Eugene -- It's true: singing on-key seems to be very low on my list of musical gauges (e.g., Okkervil River (now that's an example of a lead singer with very little singing ability), Neutral Milk Hotel). But I actually like the way John Darnielle sings. He's got a very distinct, nasally singing voice.

Counting Crows are still around? My iTunes library seems to think that they last existed in 1996. ;) Although, the entire girls' lacrosse season my freshman year of high school was powered by "Mr. Jones" and Denis Leary's "Asshole" (youtube). Good times.

Eugene said...

Well, they did put out a new album Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings, trying very hard to recover their street cred after somehow disastrously (according to critics) getting an academy award nomination for Accidentally in Love. So hard, in fact, one of the songs were deliberately sang off-key...

I don't understand the music business sometimes (and I like Accidentally in Love)...

Eugene said...

And yes, my English sucks.

Jackie said...

Actually, I was aware of "Accidentally in Love." But if you really do want a review, either you'll have to provide the music or pick something I already have. :)

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