Essential listening: Six songs to know before seeing the Mountain Goats

click to enlarge JEREMY LANGE PHOTO
Jeremy Lange Photo

Sincere, specific and smart as hell, John Darnielle is the prolific singer-songwriter who's been releasing music as the Mountain Goats since 1991 — first solo, then with other musicians like long-time bassist Peter Hughes. The Mountain Goats tend to stir impassioned reactions in people. Folks either despise them ("That guy's voice annoys me!") or revere them as the G.O.A.T. ("John Darnielle is a genius and that band is a national treasure!").

I've been a loyal Mountain Goats fan since the night in college when a biology major musician — after hearing me perform poems — slipped me two burned CDs filled with rare and live tracks by the band. That's how it worked before the Mountain Goats got radio play or soundtrack spots: You had to be introduced, inducted, perhaps by a radical librarian, a goth dad or a former theater kid.

The Mountain Goats' richly descriptive storytelling and emotional honesty can reach hurt hearts intimately, the way poetry does. We longtime fans feel like we owe the band for helping us through so much tough stuff. While the group's latest release, In League with Dragons, doesn't really connect with me, I trust they'll soon make a record that does. They've earned that trust. Though the Mountain Goats are practically always on tour, this Sunday marks their first-ever stop in Spokane. Some of us are buzzing.

New to the Mountain Goats? Here's a list of six essential songs you just might hear:

1. "No Children" (2002)

If you don't know where to dive into the band's 18-record-deep discography, start with Tallahassee. The angry piano and full-band sound of "No Children" has the leveled-up studio production that made Tallahassee a technical turning point for the Mountain Goats: No more bedroom boombox recordings! A darkly humorous concept album, Tallahassee follows a horrid imaginary pair known as "the Alpha Couple" as they buy a fixer-upper and drink themselves mean. The mutually spiteful Alpha Couple appear on previous Goats songs. However, after wrapping Tallahassee, the band officially retired the Alpha Couple as subject matter. "No Children" is their fiery swan song, loaded with caustic burns like "I hope I lie and tell everyone you were a good wife / And I hope you die! / I hope we both die!" Yeouch.

2. "This Year" (2005)

"I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me" isn't a logical mantra, yet it makes perfect sense to the young protagonist of "This Year," a song driven powerfully forward by hymn-like piano chords and a ticky-tick drum beat. Like the other tracks on The Sunset Tree, it's autobiographical, based on Darnielle's teen years living with an abusive stepfather. The record's liner notes read:

"Dedicated to any young men and women anywhere who live with people who abuse them, with the following good news:

you are going to make it out of there alive

you will live to tell your story

never lose hope"

Young John did make it out. "This Year" is his story, one that too many can relate to.

3. "Going to Georgia" (1994)

"Going to [Geographic Location]" is a recurring song title format for the Goats, but "Going to Georgia" shines as a perennial fan favorite and live show staple. It's a short love song that utilizes the thrashy, folk-punk acoustic guitar strumming that defined the band for a wide span of time. Precise, descriptive lines like "a 1967 Colt .45 / With a busted safety catch" make it easy to believe Darnielle is an author as well as a musician. (Having penned two novels and a 33 1/3 book about Black Sabbath, he's definitely an author.)

4. "Cubs in Five" (1995)

Released in '95, way before the Chicago Cubs finally broke their notorious World Series dry spell in 2016, "Cubs in Five" is a lo-fi song about how love can make us delusional — convinced of impossible things and fueled by fantasy. The unreliable narrator is just as sure that "I will love you like I used to" as he is that "the stars are gonna spell out the answers to tomorrow's crossword." Sure, buddy.

5. "The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton" (2002)

"Uh, they're not actually Satanists" is something you may have to whisper to concerned parents or loved ones once this classic Goats song reaches the "Hail Satan!" part. Inspired by John's former place of employment at a locked treatment facility for teen boys, "Best Ever..." tells the story of two misunderstood Texan teens who get locked up for daring to form a metal band. Like many Mountain Goats songs, it could be described as a revenge fantasy with a heart of gold. True to the band's values, it roots for the underdog and lifts up outcast dreamers.

6. "Palmcorder Yajna" (2004)

A recurring theme in the Mountain Goats' universe is destruction, especially self-destruction and the breakdown of untenable relationships. "Palmcorder Yajna" includes both. Found on We Shall All Be Healed — a record that reflects on John's days as a hard drug user — "Palmcorder Yajna" sounds as snarling and desperate as the song's strung-out "friends" on a crank bender in a Travelodge. Like many Mountain Goats songs, it glistens with macabre flourishes of horror: "I dreamt of a house / Haunted by all you tweakers with your hands out / And the headstones climbed up the hills." It's appropriately bleak and fun to shout along to. ♦

The Mountain Goats with Lydia Loveless • Sun, Sept. 1 at 8 pm • $28.50-$36.50 • All ages • Bing Crosby Theater • 901 W. Sprague • bingcrosbytheater.com • 227-7638

Spokane Jazz Orchestra: The Great Women of Song ft. Jamie Shew @ Bing Crosby Theater

Sat., Sept. 14, 7:30 p.m.
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