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The Mountain Goats - Heretic Pride

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Artist: The Mountain Goats

Album: Heretic Pride

Label: 4AD

Review date: Feb. 14, 2008


The Mountain Goats - "Sax Rohmer #1" (Heretic Pride)


If you’ve loved the Mountain Goats’ last several records, you’re probably going to love Heretic Pride, too. Musically, the Goats’ last album, Get Lonely, almost felt placid, and Heretic Pride is a welcome return to the quicker tempos (though not the harrowing autobiographical lyrics) of 2005’s The Sunset Tree. Heretic Pride also features several songs (the title track, “Michael Myers Resplendent,” and “Lovecraft in Brooklyn”) that are likely to become Mountain Goats classics, and John Darnielle’s vocal performance on the title track may actually be his best ever. There's a lot to like about this record.

Still, Darnielle’s move away from his ultra lo-fi past and toward a more straightforward rock sound has been a little disappointing. His early records were based around his strident but unpretentious voice and his chugging acoustic guitar playing, both of them struggling to be heard through terrible recording equipment. You might call those records minimalist, but they were complete - they required no elaboration. There was no instrument or hi-fi recording technique Darnielle could have added to make those records better. He’d developed a style, and despite the ubiquity of cheaply recorded songs in ’90s indie rock, his quasi-amateurish, lo-fi approach was a big part of that style.

On the Mountain Goats’ last several albums, Darnielle’s singing and playing sounds roughly the same as it always did, but those albums also feature relatively clean recordings and a full band. On Heretic Pride, that band includes pianist Franklin Bruno and bassist Peter Hughes, both from the underappreciated Nothing Painted Blue (and Bruno has also played with Darnielle in the duo Extra Glenns), along with Annie Clark of St. Vincent on guitar, cellist Erik Friedlander, and Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster. These are all accomplished musicians, but it mostly sounds as if their parts were afterthoughts. Friedlander’s parts, especially, typically consist of short, obvious motives. I’ve never been a big fan of the things Friedlander actually plays, but he’s clearly a very capable cellist, and having him play like he does on Heretic Pride is like hunting squirrels with a bazooka.

None of this is to say that the Mountain Goats should start recording ultra-complex prog-rock opuses, or something, only that they still haven’t answered the question of how they should approach being a full band. On one hand, a large part of the Mountain Goats’ reputation rests on Darnielle’s almost didactically clear voice and his ultra-articulate lyrics, and so the other players surely wouldn’t want to get in the way of those things. On the other, though, just by being there, they’re preventing the Mountain Goats from being what it was before, so on some level, they should be trying to turn the project into something else.

Take “Craters on the Moon,” for example – it has that familiar BA-da-da-BA-da-da-BA-da Mountain Goats rhythm, and it begins quietly, with a sense of foreboding, and gets louder from there. But Friedlander’s glassy ponticello tones are little more than the film scorer’s code for “this is supposed to sound tense,” and the melodrama of the cello-led climax is a letdown. The song would almost certainly sound better if it were just Darnielle alone, his badly-recorded guitar creating a tension that the very basic arrangements on Heretic Pride often fail to match.

If Darnielle is going to collaborate with other musicians, I’d like to hear him do so in a situation in which his collaborators are expected to add as much to his songs as he does – by working with an established arranger (like the National’s Padma Newsome, say), or by working with a full band already known for having a distinctive sound. That’d be risky – actually, it might not work at all – but the rewards would potentially be huge.

The last song on Heretic Pride, “Michael Myers Resplendent,” features no guitar at all. Instead, it’s guided by a Fender Rhodes-like keyboard, and pounding cello and drum parts that come out of nowhere, sounding like they wandered onto the masters from something Steve Albini recorded. It’s one of the best songs on the record, and it’s a lot better than the solo version that made the rounds a year or so ago. It works so well because it’s removed from the way Darnielle usually arranges his songs – it doesn’t sound like it’s halfway between his earlier barebones acoustic style and something else. As interesting as Heretic Pride already is, it misses an opportunity to pick one direction or the other.

By Charlie Wilmoth

Other Reviews of The Mountain Goats

All Hail West Texas

Ghana

Tallahassee

We Shall All Be Healed

The Sunset Tree

Get Lonely

The Life of the World to Come

All Eternals Deck

Transcendental Youth

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