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Friday, February 22, 2002

The Best Punk Folk Guy In Ames, Iowa

Neumu's Michael Goldberg writes: John Darnielle recorded most of his latest album, All Hail West Texas, on a small Panasonic boombox with built-in microphone that he bought at a Circuit City in Montclair, Calif., in "1989 or '90" for less than $50. And if that scares you, let me tell you you've got nothing to be scared about. It sounds just fine. In fact, it sounds fantastic. John's album that is.

You could say — and you would not be wrong — that I'm not the most unbiased fellow around when it comes to John Darnielle (who releases albums under the name "The Mountain Goats"). I have written, not so long ago (last June, to be exact), that he is "one of the best rock critics in the world." And that wasn't the end of it. I actually went on to say that John was even better than that.

Anyway, now I must tell you that having spent some time today with All Hail West Texas (and, fairly recently, with The Extra Glenns' very fine album Martial Arts Weekend, John's collaboration with Frank Bruno), that John also makes damn good albums. Great albums. All Hail West Texas is full of moving, funny, emotional, serious, real music. Your heart just might break, listening to some of these songs.

You could say that perhaps I have a vested interest in John, since he occasionally writes album reviews and other things for Neumu. So I want to get that out of the way right now. If I didn't really dig John's album, I just wouldn't write about it. I find it almost impossible these days to write about anything that doesn't move me in some way.

John first came to my attention when a mutual friend suggested that John just might be interested in writing some album reviews for Neumu. Turned out he was interested. And when I read a few of his published pieces, I was knocked out. I've read rock criticism for a long, long time, and I was blown away by John's writing, which was personal, amusing, took unexpected turns, and always hit the bulls-eye of whatever he was writing about.

Thus it's not so surprising that if I dug John's writing, I would also be taken by his songwriting. Turns out he's got one of those distinctive, idiosyncratic voices that sound like no one else. He's a "singer" in the same way that Bob Dylan or Paul Westerberg or Loudon Wainwright III is — the impression you get is that this is a real guy, singing the songs. No bullshit.

If John were U2, and the record company guys were sitting around trying to figure out the first single, they'd for sure come up with "The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton" — one of the best song titles in ages, of course, but also a really catchy song. I mean, Blink 182 could probably power-punk it into a hit. Well, except for that chorus, which likely wouldn't go over big on the Clear Channel stations. But we'll come back to that later.

You may feel like crying listening to "Color in Your Cheeks." I think it's about people coming to America, but I don't know. It's really more about how John sings the words. Part of one verse goes like this: "They came in by the dozens, walking and crawling/ Some were bright-eyed, some were dead on their feet... / When they finally made it here/ It was the least that we could do/ To make our welcome clear." And then he moves into the chorus, singing it in such a gracious way: "Come on in/ We haven't slept for weeks/ Drink some of this/ This will put color in your cheeks." Then he just plays the chord progression a few times.

You could listen to "Color in Your Cheeks" for days and not have it all figured out. You could lay your own interpretations on it. You could just dig the way John sings his words. Or just dig the words, the way they sound, the way they rhyme. Or the music, the imperfect way John plays the chords, and the mood those chords cast on you. "Come on in/ We haven't slept for weeks/ Drink some of this/ This will put color in your cheeks." Wow!

So there you have it. Lo-fi. Unique voice that is about as far from slick as you can get. Rough guitar playing. Amazing lyrics. Amazing melodies. And so intense. Probably one of the ten best albums that will be released this year. Maybe top five.

But back to "The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton," which is in part about Cyrus, who dreams of stardom for his band, and instead gets sent to "the school where they told him he'd never be famous." The final verse goes like this: "When you punish a person for dreaming his dream/ Don't expect him to thank or forgive you/ The best ever death metal band out of Denton will, in time, both outpace and outlive you." And about that chorus. It goes like this: "Hail Satan! Hail Satan, tonight. Hail Satan. Hail Hail."

The InsiderOne Daily Report appears on Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 9 AM PST, except when it doesn't.

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