For nearly a decade, John Darnielle, under the moniker the Mountain Goats, recorded his music solo and straight into a portable stereo, his agitated acoustic guitar, nasally bleat, and precise diction all alone with the tape hiss. He wrote hundreds of literate, witty, unpredictable songs about almost as many subjects and released on cassette-only albums, seven-inch singles, and compilation CDs.
This cult figure surfaced with 2002's brilliant indie debut, Tallahassee, adding professional production and ace accompaniment to an inexhaustible, unnervingly intimate song-cycle about a (fictional) marriage falling apart. Tallahassee was spiked with at least a couple of instant classics, including the unrelenting acid comedy "No Children" and the trembling "International Small Arms Traffic Blues."
Darnielle's latest, The Sunset Tree (due out in late April), combines qualities of his past two records. Like last year's cryptic We Shall All Be Healed, it's autobiographical. And like Tallahassee, most of the drama centers on one tortured relationship -- that of Darnielle and his abusive stepfather.
This relationship isn't the focus of every song on The Sunset Tree, but it informs the most memorable ones. The most moving are from early childhood. With its energetically strummed guitar and almost bouncing piano, "Dance Music" is jaunty enough to be just that, but instead it's a quick, indelible portrait of a child discovering the escapist powers of pop music. That discovery informs the vivid "Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod," where a child arrives home to the sight of his stepfather asleep and imagines him a snoozing monster to be awakened at one's peril. The kid retreats to his bedroom and the safety of his headphones.
With its tick-tocking percussion and wistful piano, "This Year" starts off Springsteenian, but the now-teenaged protagonist is fleeing a broken home, not just a dead-end town, and drives back home at the end of the day, not off into the sunset. Later, as an adult, he numbs the memories at a cheap hotel with wine coolers and pain killers. And in the end, he gets a call from his sister with the bittersweet news that his tormenter has died "at last," sparking the rare memory of a peaceful moment between the two. -- Chris Herrington
The Mountain Goats perform at the Hi-Tone Café Wednesday, April 6th.
The hellhound on Erika Wennerstrom's trail is Erika Wennerstrom. On Stairs and Elevators, the frontwoman for the Ohio-based trio the Heartless Bastards writes about resisting her temptations and trying to be the best version of herself. She wants "to be someone who does not take everything so seriously" and "to play the part of the life that I've waited to start."
The self that Wennerstrom is eluding occasionally trips her up with clichés, such as "I want my cake and I wanna taste it too." But she compensates with a roaring, commanding voice.
As Wennerstrom voices her doubts over her thick, muddy guitar riffs, the rhythm section of Kevin Vaughn on drums and Mike Lamping on bass propels her songs precisely and even occasionally menacingly. The songs on Stairs and Elevators sound like they were worked out live, with the band fully realizing the strengths and limitations of that setting. The impression of the album is one of a woman in constant inner conflict, but the band itself reveals no conflict at all. n -- Stephen Deusner
The Heartless Bastards open for the Drive-By Truckers Saturday, April 2nd, at the New Daisy Theatre.