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Alternatif et Indé - Released October 27, 2014 | 4AD

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On Tallahassee, the Mountain Goats' 4AD debut, John Darnielle strips his music of the tape hiss that surrounded his previous work like a security blanket made of static, opting for a clean sound that emphasizes the album's sometimes stinging, sometimes sublimely beautiful words and melodies -- call it spite and polish. Though the lo-fi soulfulness that gave his songs an extra, homemade charm before is missed, it wouldn't have fit the ambitious tale he sets out to tell here: the album revolves around a troubled husband and wife who move to Tallahassee to run away from themselves and, ultimately, drink themselves to death. Darnielle has written about this couple before, but Tallahassee takes their relationship -- and his songwriting -- to a new level of vulnerability and intensity. Even among albums chronicling difficult and dying relationships, such as Blood on the Tracks, Shoot Out the Lights, and, more recently, Sea Change, Tallahassee takes a unique approach. Far from being morose or wallowing in sorrow, the album celebrates both the peaks and the valleys of a turbulent relationship; it's less like an autopsy of a love affair than an affectionate, occasionally drunken and rowdy, wake for it. Being such a conceptual album, the lyrics carry much of Tallahassee's weight. Darnielle is up to the challenge, crafting lines that range from the title track's eloquently simple "What did I come down here for? You" to "No Children"'s wickedly funny "I hope that our few remaining friends give up on trying to save us/I hope we come up with a fail-safe plot to piss off the dumb few who forgave us." Lyrics like "We're throwing off sparks/What will I do when I don't have you/To hold onto in the dark?" from "Oceanographer's Choice" convey deeper and more ambivalent emotions altogether; the richness of detail in Darnielle's lyrics makes you wish you could read Tallahassee as well as listen to it -- it's like the Great American Novel condensed into an album (and the prologue that comes with the album gives a tantalizing glimpse of what this story could be in book form). The album is literary as well as literate; songs like the aforementioned "No Children," which appropriately enough sounds like a cross between a sea shanty and a drinking song, conjure up visions of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald crashing a party hosted by Tennessee Williams. Though Darnielle's lyrics are what make Tallahassee so compelling, the album is also musically impressive, ranging from prickly, dysfunctional love songs like "Southwood Plantation Road" and "International Small Arms Traffic Blues" -- a deceptively pretty song that likens the couple's love to global conflicts and covert arms dealing -- to gentle lulls like "Peacocks" to the cathartic "See America Right." Each of the album's songs, in their own way, convey a rare and honest blend of love and frustration that isn't heard nearly enough in any kind of music. "Idylls of the King," which sounds a bit like an indie rock response to "Aguas del Marco," celebrates the wife's eyes as "Twin volcanos/Bad ideas dancing around in there," while the oddly sprightly finale "Alpha Rat's Nest" raises more questions than it answers: what relationship is truly "bad" if both parties go in with their eyes open? Throughout it all, Darnielle's folky twang gives an added authenticity and urgency to his tales of war, peace, love, and hate all living underneath the same roof. Ultimately, Tallahassee is about the staying power, for better or worse, of his couple's love; likewise, the album itself has plenty of staying power, only getting better and growing richer with each listen. ~ Heather Phares
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Alternatif et Indé - Released October 27, 2014 | 4AD

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Alternatif et Indé - Released March 21, 2005 | 4AD

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Alternatif et Indé - Released December 8, 2003 | 4AD

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Alternatif et Indé - Released July 21, 2003 | 4AD

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Alternatif et Indé - Released October 27, 2014 | 4AD

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If possible, the Mountain Goats' We Shall All Be Healed is an even bigger, lusher-sounding work than Tallahassee, the group's 4AD debut and the debut of their more polished production style. Whether or not this approach is somehow less authentic or more invasive than the ultra lo-fi sound of John Darnielle and company's earlier albums is up for debate, but, as with Tallahassee, it's a choice that works well for this particular set of songs. In fact, the lush strings and pianos that grace the album only make Darnielle's relentlessly strummed guitars and unadorned vocals sound even more strikingly plain. On Tallahassee, the Mountain Goats used their newfound polish to emphasize the album's decaying Southern gothic romance; We Shall All Be Healed sounds bright and crisp, burning with righteous anger that is fueled by Darnielle's sardonic humor. Beginning with "Slow West Vultures"' rapid-fire acoustic guitars and snippets of forced laughter and shattering glass, the album makes full use of its widescreen production; "Linda Blair Was Born Innocent" is searching and sad, using touches of Americana without sounding hidebound to that sound. As with all of his Mountain Goats work, We Shall All Be Healed has a passion lacking in a lot of music that is much louder. Darnielle's high, insistent voice, punctuated by his relentless strumming, is particularly intense on the talky, funny "Palmcorder Yajna." The oddly rousing "The Young Thousands" manages to be atmospheric and direct at the same time, and on "Home Again Garden Grove" Darnielle sounds like a veteran returning home. The album's softer songs retain that intensity: "All Up the Seething Coast" is quiet and mostly spoken word, but it recalls the calm before the storm more than the coffeehouse. "Cotton" is a sad and lovely song "for the people who tell their families they're sorry for things that they can't and won't be sorry for," and the cryptically lovely "Your Belgian Things" allows the listener to piece together a tumultuous story from Darnielle's recollections: "I can see you in my sleep/Playing the points for all you're worth/Walking gingerly across/The bruised earth." As musically and lyrically accomplished as We Shall All Be Healed is, it's not quite as gripping or rich as the best of the Mountain Goats' earlier work or Tallahassee, but that's relative; on its own terms, the album is still profoundly smart and profoundly emotional. ~ Heather Phares
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Alternatif et Indé - Released October 6, 2009 | 4AD

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Alternatif et Indé - Released February 19, 2008 | 4AD

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Alternatif et Indé - Released May 2, 2005 | 4AD

John Darnielle is a compulsive writer forever clutching his stomach as songs pour out uncontrollably into whatever recording device is in front of him. What sets him apart from other prolific artists in the indie rock world (Conor Oberst, Ryan Adams, Stephin Merritt) whose records and side projects can't keep up with the flow of their pens is his almost alarming gift for pairing quantity with quality. After dropping the devastating Tallahassee -- a record that followed in gory detail the imagined demise of a Florida couple's marriage -- in 2002, he turned his focus inward, taking an almost autobiographical stance on the follow-up, We Shall All Be Healed, a framework that is applied tenfold on the riveting The Sunset Tree. This is John Cougar Mellencamp's Scarecrow if it were set in southern California and narrated by Charles Bukowski. At the center is Darnielle's abusive stepfather, who slyly receives the album's dedication. He's a drunk, a misguided disciplinarian, and a lousy role model for the young artist who plies away his days in a haze of liquor-fueled misogyny, wistful romanticism, and good old-fashioned teen angst, always aware that each night will end in violence. Darnielle's talent for writing an engaging narrative is matched only by the succinctness of the music behind it. This is especially true on standout cuts like "This Year," a near-perfect snapshot of youthful defiance with its rousing, last-road-trip-ever refrain of "I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me," and "Lion's Teeth," an uncomfortable moment of clarity that looks rage in both eyes without flinching, using a string-laden backbeat to up the suspense. Despite The Sunset Tree's white-knuckle subject matter and salt-in-the-wound imagery, it's surprisingly accessible. It's a gloves-off catharsis occurring in real time for the gifted singer/songwriter, and it leaves a mark on the listener as well. ~ James Christopher Monger
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Alternatif et Indé - Released January 27, 2003 | 4AD

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Alternatif et Indé - Released February 2, 2004 | 4AD

If possible, the Mountain Goats' We Shall All Be Healed is an even bigger, lusher-sounding work than Tallahassee, the group's 4AD debut and the debut of their more polished production style. Whether or not this approach is somehow less authentic or more invasive than the ultra lo-fi sound of John Darnielle and company's earlier albums is up for debate, but, as with Tallahassee, it's a choice that works well for this particular set of songs. In fact, the lush strings and pianos that grace the album only make Darnielle's relentlessly strummed guitars and unadorned vocals sound even more strikingly plain. On Tallahassee, the Mountain Goats used their newfound polish to emphasize the album's decaying Southern gothic romance; We Shall All Be Healed sounds bright and crisp, burning with righteous anger that is fueled by Darnielle's sardonic humor. Beginning with "Slow West Vultures"' rapid-fire acoustic guitars and snippets of forced laughter and shattering glass, the album makes full use of its widescreen production; "Linda Blair Was Born Innocent" is searching and sad, using touches of Americana without sounding hidebound to that sound. As with all of his Mountain Goats work, We Shall All Be Healed has a passion lacking in a lot of music that is much louder. Darnielle's high, insistent voice, punctuated by his relentless strumming, is particularly intense on the talky, funny "Palmcorder Yajna." The oddly rousing "The Young Thousands" manages to be atmospheric and direct at the same time, and on "Home Again Garden Grove" Darnielle sounds like a veteran returning home. The album's softer songs retain that intensity: "All Up the Seething Coast" is quiet and mostly spoken word, but it recalls the calm before the storm more than the coffeehouse. "Cotton" is a sad and lovely song "for the people who tell their families they're sorry for things that they can't and won't be sorry for," and the cryptically lovely "Your Belgian Things" allows the listener to piece together a tumultuous story from Darnielle's recollections: "I can see you in my sleep/Playing the points for all you're worth/Walking gingerly across/The bruised earth." As musically and lyrically accomplished as We Shall All Be Healed is, it's not quite as gripping or rich as the best of the Mountain Goats' earlier work or Tallahassee, but that's relative; on its own terms, the album is still profoundly smart and profoundly emotional. ~ Heather Phares

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