Thursday, February 7, 2013

Transcendental Youth

By their third or fourth album most bands have used up most of the creativity that fueled their early work, but for the Mountain Goats’ 14th album, “Transcendental Youth,” still packs as much of a punch as their first album. The Mountain Goats formed in the early 1990s and still are around today with lead singer John Darnielle as the core member.

While their folk rock sound hasn't changed much, their early lo-fi home recordings that focused on Darnielle's childhood and teenage experiences are a far cry from the polished "Transcendental Youth." On this new album, which came out in July, 2012, Darnielle experiments with new music genres. A few of the tracks such as the title track include horns that give the album a jazzy feel. Almost every Mountain Goats’ album has told a loose story, ranging from a slowly dissolving marriage in “Tallahassee” to a group of junkies living in a house together in “We Shall All Be Healed.” Not all their songs are this depressing though, trust me.

Before playing one of their most popular songs “No Children,” which is arguably the most bitter break-up song of all time, at a 2010 show at the Aladdin Theater in Portland, Darnielle jokingly reassured the audience, “This song doesn’t really relate to my life because I’m in a healthy relationship and have been for a long time.”

That’s one of the reasons that makes the Mountain Goats so great. Darnielle is a brilliant lyricist whose songs tell the stories of gangsters, high school metal heads, gladiators, pop singers, high school football players, and sometimes even his life. It doesn’t matter that the Mountain Goats’ songs are usually five chords at the most and feature just guitar, bass, vocals, keys, and drums, Darnielle’s lyrics make each song unique.

While “Transcendental Youth” features more instruments and has a crisp studio sound than other albums, when you hear Darnielle’s gruff, distinctive, voice on the opening track “Amy AKA Spent Gladiator 1,” a song he wrote after the death of British singer Amy Winehouse, you know it’s the Mountain Goats. The album is about a group of people living in the Pacific Northwest. Like much of the Mountain Goats’ previous work, it focuses on the outcasts and misfits of society, a group it appears Darnielle associates with greatly.

The album has some strong points, such as the title track “Transcendental Youth,” a slow reflective song which as the last song on the album features Darnielle singing with at least a little hope for the future. “Harlem Roulette,” song about fame and what comes with it features the great sing-a-long line, "The loneliest people in the whole wide world are the ones you're never going to see again.”  
    As a whole though, the album isn’t as strong as the Mountain Goats earlier work. The stories Darnielle tells aren’t as memorable as in “Tallahassee” or “All Hail West Texas” and the horns aren’t enough to make some songs blend together in a sea of blandness.

I was still excited to see the Mountain Goats when they came on tour last year. It was crucial for the Mountain Goats to play a show in Portland on tour for “Transcendental Youth,” seeing that it is the background of many songs on the album. The show took place on Dec. 16 at the Aladdin Theater, a venue I had seen them at two years previous.

At the first show I was stuck up in the balcony because of Oregon’s silly alcohol laws, but for some unknown reason I was allowed to be on the floor for this show.

I took a spot at the front of the stage and started talking to the other Mountain Goat fans around me. It immediately became clear that everyone there loved the Mountain Goats just as much as I did. I talked to two teenage boys from Idaho who had driven all the way from Boise just to come to the show.

From the opening song, “White Cedar,” which is about a bus stop on NE 33rd Avenue in Portland, to the encore “Transcendental Youth,” the audience sang along. These were obviously devoted fans. Even though the Mountain Goats don’t have a huge following, it is definitely a cultish one.

The band who played the show consisted of Darnielle, Peter Hughes on bass, and Jon Wurster on drums, as well as a small horns section. This minimalist take was a nice breath of fresh air to other recent live shows, which seem to try to feature as many musicians and instruments as possible.

The Mountain Goats played almost all of “Transcendental Youth” as well as older crowd favorites such as “Up the Wolves.” Before almost every song, Darnielle gave a little story about it. This Darnielle was different than from two years ago. At that show his stories had been long and very prepared. He seemed much more lighthearted and many of the stories were about his young son. 

Even though “Transcendental Youth” isn’t the strongest Mountain Goats album, it still sounds like the Mountain Goats. The songs are creepily relatable and it’s hard not to sing along.  Just like any other Mountain Goats album, it’s the perfect thing to blast in your parent’s old sedan on a lonely Saturday night when you have no one else to talk to.

In other news sorry about the lack of posts recently- I've been crazy busy studying for finals AND my tripod broke so no fashiony posts. I hope to be able to pick this blog back up now it's second semester and I'm not (as) busy. 

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