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Album Review: The Mountain Goats – All Eternals Deck [Merge]

Yes, The Mountain Goats have finally reached lucky album number 13 in their discography. John Darnielle started the project in 1991, making this the 20th anniversary of the band, so by all counts with the numbers at play this could either be a very good thing or a very bad one. The album is titled “All Eternals Deck”, and it marks a couple of interesting changes for the band. Now on their third record as an official three-piece, The Mountain Goats have jumped record labels from 4AD to Merge, and peppered their studio sessions with a wide variety of producers. Darnielle has long admitted to an extreme love of death metal, and it was announced that uber-metal producer Erik Rutan, also of the bands Morbid Angel and Hate Eternal, would be behind the boards for a handful of tracks. That handful amounted to four of the (again) lucky 13 songs on the album, and if you were expecting heavy electric guitars and some gutteral screaming as a total change of pace for the band, it would have been interesting had they actually gone that direction. Apparently Darnielle hasn’t yet perfected the metal vocals. As much as a change of pace and style might have been nice, there are those satisfied with the way things currently are, with Darnielle and his cohorts Peter Hughes and Jon Wurster making intriguing and introspective folk rock. So guess what? “All Eternals Deck” is more of that.

If you’ve ever seen the movies “Near Dark” or “From Dusk Til Dawn”, you’ll recognize the plot of “All Eternals Deck”‘s opening cut “Damn These Vampires”. The main character is saddling up in the Old West, where apparently vampires have run amok and he’s been cursed with their “gift” of immortality, having been bitten. Audibly speaking, the song rolls along much like the dusty open plains, complete with somber piano, sedate acoustic guitars and just the light twittering of drums. The track is also a good microcosm of the record itself, though nothing else quite sticks in the realm of “Twilight” fan fiction. The focus is typically dark though, much like the pitch black album cover, and there are supernatural/spiritual elements at work for much of it. After the last Mountain Goats record “The Life of the World to Come” was Biblically strident and wholly conceptual, “All Eternals Deck” is a welcome respite from those constraints even as Darnielle continues to make references to religion. “Prowl Great Cain” is something of an ode to the first ever murderer in the Bible, attempting to dive into his mindset after being marked by God for murdering his brother. “Sometimes a great wave of forgetfulness rises up and blesses me/and other times the sickness howls and I despair of any remedy/And I feel guilty that I can’t feel ashamed,” Darnielle sings amid a dual guitar, high energy melody that defies the subject matter.

When not writing songs about murderers in the Bible, “For Charles Bronson” takes on the Hollywood legend and perennial badass star of classics such as the “Death Wish” series and “The Dirty Dozen”. The guy was known for “killing” people on camera, though the song itself tries to grasp how he handled his personal life. “Hit the gym each night/stay cool and seldom speak/keep the heart of a champion/let them never see you’re weak”, sounds about right for a guy that was so often confused with the characters he played that the actual lines between fantasy and reality were often blurred. There is a fascination with celebrity that permeates “All Eternals Deck” as well, from Judy Garland getting abused by a movie studio on “The Autopsy Garland” to slyly referencing the cult classic “The Warriors” on “High Hawk Season” to the totally obvious closing song “Liza Forever Minnelli”. What’s interesting is that even if those with “high artistic pursuits” are right in suggesting that pop culture’s obsession with celebrity is one of society’s biggest problems, Darnielle’s white hot wordplay turns that trash into gold. These aren’t songs about sex tape scandals or rampant drug use, but rather the perils of fame and the constant reminder that beyond the silver screen are real people with the same built in feelings that we all have.

Elsewhere on the album, Darnielle covers that age old topic of relationships, both romantic and non-romantic. “Sourdoire Valley Song” takes almost the opposite view of the fame concept by soliciting empathy for those with the belief they will have no impact on the world. If there’s one song that comes closest to actually “going metal” on the album, “Estate Sale Sign” provides the energy and the acid tongue. Replace the vigorously strummed acoustic guitars with electrics and you’ll have a loud and brash punk rock song. Darnielle also gives a tour-de-force vocal to match the heartbroken lyrics. The song is about how we divide things up after a relationship ends, along with the extreme bitterness we can have towards our exes. Beyond those many topics buried throughout this record, there are a couple of small moments that are cause to pay attention at a more instrumental level. “Age of Kings” makes for a pretty gorgeous song with the slow and deliberately subdued violins. Meanwhile “Outer Scorpion Squadron” winds up being the most complex track on the entire record, with a full orchestra sweeping in for an interesting change of pace. Other than those couple standouts, everything else is a combination of acoustic and light electric guitar, piano, and just enough drums to give you an idea of the beat.

After so many records, The Mountain Goats have become a band less about forward momentum and innovation and more about consistency. John Darnielle and the boys have taken the band to the place it needs to go and stay without really a dip in quality. The lyrics are the key, and Darnielle holds fast in his ability to very actively engage the listener with stories and emotional moments. The variety of topics addressed on “All Eternals Deck” is refreshing compared to the religious themes of “The Life of the World to Come” and “Heretic Pride” (to a degree). Prior to that you had the relationship-destroyed “Get Lonely”, which was an emotionally bare Darnielle solo record, so basically it’s been a few years since The Mountain Goats have released a non-concept album. That was just what the doctor ordered apparently, along with the support of multiple producers – even one that has a long-standing heavy metal background. And as dark as it goes, there are plenty of lighter, more carefree moments to try and balance that out, which is kind of nice. This may very well be the best Mountain Goats record since “The Sunset Tree”, and that’s saying something. In this particular case, it most certainly seems that 13 really is their lucky number.

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Album Review: The Extra Lens – Undercard [Merge]

The last time The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle and Nothing Painted Blue/The Human Hearts’s Franklin Bruno collaborated on a project, I hadn’t heard of either band. That was the oh-so-long-ago year of 2002, when they put out the album “Martial Arts Weekend” under the band name The Extra Glenns. Since that time, The Mountain Goats have gone on to a rich history and indie-level popularity having released a grand total of SIX records. Bruno has been significantly less active band-wise, as Nothing Painted Blue is only sporadically active these days and The Human Hearts have put out only one album so far (in 2007). One of the more fascinating things about Bruno and Darnielle is that they’re both essentially solo artists with backing bands. The faces behind the guitars and drums may change, but the vocals and lyrics stay the same. With Bruno’s lack of progress on the music front in the last several years, he may be feeling a little bit pent up creatively and looking for that next big break. In Darnielle’s case, he could be on the verge of burnout having released so much music in such a short period of time, most of it with sharp thematic curves. The last Mountain Goats album, “The Life of the World to Come”, played entirely on verses in the Bible that Darnielle found fascinating. 2006’s “Get Lonely” was ostensibly a record about a tragic breakup. Those are just a couple of the many issues he’s dealt with the last 8 years, and rarely has he had a moment to let loose. Perhaps that’s why reuniting with Bruno for another album seemed like such a great idea right now. They’ve changed their name from The Extra Glenns to The Extra Lens, and the new album is almost appropriately titled “Undercard”.

In the sport of boxing, the undercard event is defined as the precursor to the main event. To put it in more easily definable music terms, an undercard band would be opening for a headliner. By calling their record “Undercard” and using the boxing ring imagery for the cover, The Extra Lens make sure to set the bar slightly lower than what you might expect from a Mountain Goats or a Nothing Painted Blue/Human Hearts. Even if these thinly veiled metaphors aren’t getting the message across, there’s not a whole lot on the record you’re going to easily mistake for either of these two guys’ bands. Okay, so the easiest thing to do is to call this another Mountain Goats album. Understandably, mostly because Darnielle has lead vocals on every song, with the occasional harmony/backing vocal from Bruno. Darnielle wrote most of the songs, and he’s a wordsmith true and true, though there are a couple of Bruno-penned tracks that are equally vivacious lyrically.

What truly differentiates this Extra Lens record from anything either of them have done are the lack of cohesive themes and the sheer pop energy. Yes, there are stories of underdogs and people “down for the count”, but there’s no firm grasp on any of it, so don’t worry about trying to understand something that purposely doesn’t make sense. The song titles give you a decent idea of what each song is about. “Adultery” is about cheating on your spouse. “Only Existing Footage” is about the filming of a movie gone horribly wrong. “Tug on the Line” is a story about a fish. You get the idea. It’s all put together in nice prose that you are free to gush over or analyza to whatever ends you like. Then there’s that “pop energy”. Those two words are deceiving when used here, but the more fleshed out idea is that most of the songs on “Undercard” are genuinely fun and have solid hooks that can stick in your head. The mere thought of John Darnielle unbuttoning a button on his shirt, chugging a beer and flashing a big smile is completely ludicrous. The guy always seems so in control and self-serious that the much looser vibe of this record is like finding out your straightlaced suit-and-tie boss moonlights as some amazing club DJ on the weekends. Not that he wasn’t great before, but now thanks to this album he seems that much more awesome. The Mountain Goats is his day job, but at night he gets together with a friend and they just jam, playing whatever feels good. One listen to that rag-tag guitar strumming on “Rockin’ Rockin’ Twilight of the Gods” and there’s no way you can confuse this with something The Mountain Goats would do. The couple quiet moments, such as the seemingly random and highly ominous Randy Newman cover of “In Germany Before the War”, make for a more layered and smart approach. Those songs are more about establishing an atmosphere or mood, which balances out the lovely toe-tappers and prevents the wheels from completely falling off the wagon.

The simplest way for you to enjoy “Undercard” is to sit back and relax. There’s some serious temptation to pore over every word and read the surprisingly extensive liner notes in which Darnielle and Bruno seem to try and explain every song in deep detail, but that’s stuff best saved for a rainy day. For the moment, just let the rather fun songs be only that and nothing more, because the tales of boxing beatdowns and suicide prevention will get you down if you don’t understand the black humor of it all. The twisted and morbid words counteract many of the upbeat melodies, and it’s a pretty sly joke not everybody will understand. That’s okay though, because plainspoken lyrics aren’t Darnielle’s or Bruno’s thing. Instead they both seem content to have a brief respite from the burdens their respective “bands” to work together as friends. Just by the way “Undercard” loosely flows you can tell these two guys have been friends for a long time. It’s nice that they’ve decided to give this project another go after the 8-year hiatus. Let’s just hope The Extra Lens doesn’t wait that long again to make another record. This one’s such a delight it only leaves you wanting more.

The Extra Lens – Only Existing Footage

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