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In a world where music has often become just another processed marketing technique used by the big businesses to market towards a specific demographic, it is nice to find artists that still sound not only spontaneous and powerful, but also like actual people.
I've never been a big fan of terms like "indie rock" or "alternative" as I think they are at times to vague to describe music accurately and often cause more confusion than anything else. Maybe it is because I'm to often put off by what mainstream media labels indie rock to take the time to consider the term and determine actually what it means. I guess I would dub the Mountain Goats indie rock if I have to, although if I don't I would put them under modern folk or folk rock as I think this more accurately describes their sound. Unlike some other indie rock bands, the Mountain Goats seem to have a little something special in terms of songwriting, style and understanding that makes their songs great.
I came to find the Mountain Goats during my downloading years and along with a few other bands that have yet to see major success, they have remained with me from the very first song I ever heard. To this day I have only heard a few songs, never actually getting around to buy entire albums (I will own all of them eventually, and have been meaning to for a while), but these songs have had such an impact on me that I consider this group to have some of the most authentic and unique songwriting I've heard in a long time.
There musical style, as I said, I would describe as folk rock or modern folk. Often consisting of only vocals and acoustic guitar, while other times featuring harmonized vocals and the addition of bass and maybe some sparse strings. Also interesting is their rough recording techniques often only using a simple department store boom box and cassette tapes where the tape hiss and sound actually becomes part of the music, giving their songs a little extra level of authenticity, roughness and an aged quality.
The first songs I ever heard from the Mountain Goats are from an unreleased 7" LP by the group called Jack & Faye. It contained 4 songs and yet these songs remain some of my favorite songs for their simplicity, storytelling and realism. These four songs consist primarily of singer/songwriter John Darnielle on guitar and vocals , which by itself is very powerful and unique, but what makes these tracks extra special is the absolutely spine tingling sweet harmonies of Rachel Ware added sparsely at just the right moments to add a rich melancholy, mountain music-esque feel to to them. "Raid on Entebbe" is my particular favorite from this set. It's simple stomping guitar chords are the perfect accompaniment to its rambling story style lyrics. "There Will Always Be an Ireland" is also a highlight (although really all 4 songs are great), with its sweet folksy style and lyrics, it just sounds straight out of the back country, and conjures images of green fields, blowing winds and rolling landscapes with a feel that is melancholy, but not depressing. Again, the harmonies are just perfect for the feel.
Since finding these initial 4 tracks, I have heard a number of other tracks from there various albums, all that are worth checking out, but my favorite song I have yet heard is "Family Happiness" from the group's 2000 release The Coroners Gambit. This song features such a rough quality to it, with a bit of what sounds like "in the red recording" that doesn't detract, but instead enhances the feel of this gritty, symbol laced, war protest song that probably would have fit in well back during the Vietnam war. The guitar track builds as do it's lyrics adding to the emotional feel, but for me the lyrics are what I really love. They tell a somewhat rambling story that comes off quite authentic and poetic while still being a bit non sequitur, quasi ironic and symbolic. These lyrics just sound so honest and real, like a real persons thoughts, not over produced stories and drama designed to sell records. They're also emotional without being melodramatic or so heavily drenched in their difficult topic that they become to difficult to listen to, something that can happen when discussing things like war.
When I first heard the group, for some reason they reminded me immediately of Bob Dylan. Now, I don't think they sound like Dylan really musically or lyrically as much, but are in the same vein. They have the same kind of immediacy, authenticity and sense that this is the writing of an actual person. That said, there is a sharp difference between the Mountain Goats and Dylan as well. Both seem to have the same sense that they may understand, but don't necessarily have all the answers (and don't necessarily want to) and I find both easy to relate to in their authenticity. Dylan sounds far more grizzled (even when he was young he sounded a lot older than he was), like a world weary blues or folk musician who's seen just about everything, but also more whimsical. The Mountain Goats sound a bit more innocent, literary and even philosophical with their stories while still maintaining an understanding about life, love and people.
There seems to be a thread to this piece; that the lyrics are what makes the Mountain Goats so great. That's only partially true because although these songs could probably easily stand with any sort of production techniques, it is the spontaneity, roughness, and raw feel, like you're out walking along a dirt track listening to them play as they walk along side you, or in the case of "Family Happiness", like you're in the car with them watching the scene unfold in its haste as you "cruise across the Canadian border." The overall feel of the tracks just works so well with the lyrics that it makes for great songs through and though.
If you're looking for symphonic crafted and polished tracks though, look elsewhere... These songs sound best as rough and as sparse as possible because it gives them that special character that even the best sounding and perfectly orchestrated parts might never have. I haven't heard the most recent tracks from the group, but according to some of the reviews I've read, they have marked a slight departure from the completely lo-fi sound of their earlier work. This newer sound should add a nice new dimension to their work as their songwriting is strong, but I think I'll always be more drawn to the rougher tracks.
If you're interested in folksy music, folk rock or, god forbid, even indie rock (just kidding), I'd recommend checking out the Mountain Goats. I'm been engrossed with their lyrical and songwriting style since I first heard them play and maybe you will be too.
Here's a link to the groups web page: http://www.mountain-goats.com/
Here you can find a series of mp3s including the mp3s from the unreleased 7" LP I've discussed, definitely worth downloading: http://www.themountaingoats.net/wiki/doku.php?id=mp3s:home