CD reviews of The Mountain Goats, Bon Iver and The Mars Volta
February 22, 2008
The Mountain Goats
Steamboat Springs — “Heretic Pride”
John Darnielle is great when he’s mildly pissed off. In his prolific stay as the engagingly nasal-voiced lead singer and songwriter for The Mountain Goats, Darnielle has made a name with deeply insightful lyrics that aren’t about anything especially deep – he sings about what he sees, and he does it well enough to craft entire albums on observation and everyday relationships.
But sometimes, Darnielle gets feisty. That’s the case on “Heretic Pride,” Darnielle’s return to writing songs about anything outside of himself. It’s more accessible than the past couple of Goats releases, often embracing piano pop flourishes to cut across Darnielle’s abrasive vocals.
From the opening track, “Sax Rohmer #1,” Darnielle stomps – if that’s possible with his slight frame and acoustic guitar – through songs about war, desperation, lost romances and California highways. They don’t go together, and it doesn’t matter.
Darnielle gets his themes from his oddly detailed characters, describing one as a “great, unstable mass of blood and foam” and the next as a proud heretic being dragged through the streets.
That leaves continuity to other sources – in this case, the result is a collection of perfectly balanced songs from John Vanderslice and Superchunk’s Jon Wurster.
Recommended Stories For You
“For Emma, Forever Ago”
Justin Vernon’s debut as Bon Iver sounds like it was recorded in a remote hunting cabin – because it was.
The latest addition to the quietly introspective songwriting canon (Iron & Wine, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, etc.), Bon Iver makes relatively simple, strained odes to solitude. Sometimes closer to Gregorian chant than it is to coffeehouse folk, the songs on “For Emma, Forever Ago” capture a range of emotion without ever really changing their tone.
On “Skinny Love” – the album’s only single, if it has one – Vernon uses a breathy falsetto to give weight to his indie folk shouting: “I told you to be patient / I told you to be fine / I told you to be balanced / I told you to be kind / now all your love is wasted? / then who the hell was I?” It’s the only part of “For Emma” that reads like song lyrics. Everything else is closer to free-form poetry. Both writing styles work for Vernon.
The real standout here, though, is “The Wolves (Act I and II),” a song that works in easy layers (all Vernon) and just a few lines to make something surprisingly thick – a texture that is frenzied and then, out of nowhere, is gone.
That’s what makes “For Emma, Forever Ago” so intriguing: Vernon never asks questions and doesn’t have to give answers, which means his raspy romances can move through the album’s 37 minutes unharmed.
The Mars Volta
“The Bedlam Goliath”
There has never been a good reason to like the pseudo-expansive nu-hardcore The Mars Volta has tried to contribute to popular rock music. This is a band that thinks it is interesting – and that tries to prove that through voice distortion, found sounds, strained whopping techno beats and filtered guitars.
But The Mars Volta is not interesting. And recording 8-minute glitch opuses is not going to change that.