The Mountain Goats: Heretic Pride (4AD)
John Darnielle has been recording as the Mountain Goats since 1991. I can’t believe I haven’t heard of him before, because he’s very, very good. He’s known for his “literary” lyrics, which is industry shorthand for “really good” lyrics. There isn’t any bubblegum pop with awful rhyming. This is smart songwriting (lyrically and musically) that feels like a rush of clean air in today’s cluttered music world—think the Decemberists, Colin Meloy, and Bishop Allen as reference points. Darnielle doesn’t shy away from letting his imagination explode everywhere on this album: “San Bernadino” is a surprisingly sweet tune about a couple who checks into a roadside motel to give birth in the tub. “Heretic Pride” might be the point of view of the avenging angel at the end of the world who is relieved that it’s finally all over: He “can taste jasmine” again (even though the townspeople “dragged [his] body through the streets”), and he’ll “feel so proud when the reckoning arrives.” Then there’s “Autoclave,” a love (?) song where Darnielle compares himself to a “great, unstable mass of blood and foam, and no one in her right mind would make her home my home.” The genius of Darnielle is that if you aren’t listening carefully, the sweet songs sweep you away. And if you are listening, they sweep you away even further.
The Warlocks: Heavy Deavy Skull Lover
(Tee Pee Records)
You can get the idea of this album’s sullen outlook not only from its title, but from its song titles: “The Valley of Death,” “Moving Mountains,” “So Paranoid,” “Slip Beneath,” “Dreamless Days,” and “Death, I Hear You Walking.” Not that that’s a bad thing. The album might start off sounding like a Mazzy Star–with–droning-guitar-underwater, but by the third song it morphs into The Jesus and Mary Chain–with–fuzzed-out-guitar-underwater. It actually wakes up during “Moving Mountains,” which starts off sounding exactly like what moving a mountain would sound like (long and laborious), and evolves nicely into a churning guitar-fest at the end. With four of its eight songs clocking in at over 6:30, the Warlocks have made a good claim to be the jam band of droning, dark metal. This is not an album to buy if you’re looking to be uplifted, but it is perfect if you’re looking to descend into a murky, dark, bog-water sonic fest. It makes you feel heavy and moody, which sometimes can be quite a magical thing.
God Fires Man: A Billion Balconies Facing the Sun (In De Goot)
The problem I have with alt-metal is that it’s alt-metal. Bands that fall into this genre want to come off edgy and dangerous, but always fall into the trap of incorporating a pop feel into their songs, which completely cancels out the tall, dark, and brooding mood they’ve created. Such is the case with God Fires Man. They’re loud, have guitar licks, love snarling vocals, and hold it all together with lots of “pop.” They might worship at the altar of the Smashing Pumpkins, and there might be hints of the Foo Fighers in their choruses, but their prayers haven’t been answered either way. They’re a caricature of a nineties “rock” band (think Goo Goo Dolls), which isn’t necessarily a good thing. However, if you’re in the mood for some up-tempo rock that’s not very dangerous, these are your guys. I’m warning you, though: You’ve heard this before.
The Dodos: Visiter (French Kiss)
There have been a lot of new San Francisco–based bands lately, and I have yet to find one I really like. Same goes for The Dodos, an acoustic act centered around a guitar and a drum, whose music left me feeling flat. I felt no passion, no creativity, no energy coming from the album. Two tracks actually managed to have a pulse and keep me interested (“Joe’s Waltz” and “Jodi”), and should be focused on by the band as something to build upon. Other than that, Visiter did not inspire me. It’s not that I don’t like acoustic music (see my reviews of Jose Gonzalez and Chatham County Line in past issues of the Rail), but The Dodos just don’t show that they’re enjoying making this music at all—it’s got no soul and no movement. For a record that is screaming to be called alt-folk, there doesn’t seem to be any of either component present. And like the animal they take their name from, I don’t see much of a future for them.
The Morning Benders: Talking Through Tin Cans (+1 Records)
The Morning Benders have written some incredibly catchy tunes heavily influenced by Sgt. Pepper–era Beatles and Tom Petty. They also incorporate the breezy sound of late-sixties California pop bands to great effect. The songs are smart, tight, and confident, and have incredibly catchy choruses. The Benders are an indie-pop band with success written all over them in heavy marker. They also sound pretty similar to Ambulance, who came out with a smart, tight, and incredibly delicious album a few years back. I’d take Ambulance over these guys any day, but the Morning Benders have that vibe I like—easygoing yet driving, get-stuck-in-your-head but seemingly timeless—and it’s hard for an addict like me to ignore that. However, their strength is also their biggest weakness: When they veer away from their upbeat catchy pop-tune pattern (see the last few songs), it all collapses like a deck of cards into a morass of sound without any direction.
Grant Moser is an art writer and frequent contributing writer for the Brooklyn Rail.