These days bedroom recording artists have Logic X and a raft of other gadgets to play around with. Back in 2001 The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle relied on his Panosonic RX-FT500 boombox and its tiny, tinny condenser mic. Turns out this ancient piece of technology, which was bought by Darnielle in 1989, died for a while in the 90s but revived itself for this recording, was perfect for taking the listener into the heart of his story telling lyrics.
The technology was just one part of the perfect storm of amateur equipment and mundane events that make All Hail West Texas, which has been reissued this month with seven extra tracks, such a special album. Recorded truly alone, at his new home in a new town during a week while his wife was away playing hockey, gives him a sense of isolation and really understanding the characters he’s writing about here.
Be it Cyrus and Jeff, Darnielle’s two teenage heroes whose dreams are shattered by an adult world that doesn’t understand them in Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton, or the life spiraling out of control in Fall of the Star High School Running Back, Darnielle’s alone time brings them to life. Color in Your Cheeks, about making friends and an idealised view of US immigration, is another that clearly benefits from Darnielle’s lonely situation and his sense of longing for friendship.
Another factor in its recording was he’d just started a new healthcare job, working with children in a residential facility, and was undergoing a period of ‘orientation’ training, leaving him plenty of time to scribble down lyrics and flesh out the likes of Jeff and Cyrus.
Mostly recorded as they were being written using this old machine also gives the album a unique feel as if Darnielle had to get the song committed to cassette before it broke down again or the tape ran out.
Thankfully the remastering involved here is more a lick of paint than a full scale renovation. To spruce it up too much which destroy its splendour. The seven extra tracks are also welcome, recorded around the same time and also showing the same keen sense of melody and interesting lyrics of those that made the final cut. Waco would ordinarily have become one of his most well known songs, but the tape cut out as he was recording and further attempts to sing it never quite matched this take for Darnielle. Indonesia, which he confesses would not have sounded out of place on his first album for 4AD Tallahassee, is another highpoint of these extra tracks.
So over a decade on what else is there, apart from some great lyrics and intimate, amateurish recording, that makes this album special? The music itself has to be good to make a great album, and here, Darnielle’s acoustic guitar and vocal delivery are full of wonderful melody and passion. Pink and Blue, for example, is so simple, so effective and so darn catchy. Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton even has a crowd pleasing singalong ‘Hail Satan’ that delights Mountain Goats audiences to this day.
For those new to Mountain Goats this is a pretty good starting point, but far from typical of their current sound. It was the end of an era, with The Mountain Goats moving to the large indie label 4AD shortly after and more intricate, clever use of studio production. Now on Merge they are firmly a full band centred around Darnielle, bassist Peter Hughes and drummer Jon Wurster. There are die hard fans that regret Darnielle’s progression and prefer him to continue to slave away at the boombox. I for one welcome his musical education and feel equally uplifted by the rising horn sections that light up The Mountain Goats’ 2012 album Transcendental Youth as I do when I hear Darnielle strumming away on his own in front of his old Panasonic boombox.
by Joe Lepper