ny act whose music consists largely of aggressive acoustic guitar and strident vocal pronouncements would seem to be in danger of falling too easily within the folk/revival tradition. Unfortunately, more often that not, that means a widespread (although not universal) artistic dismissal of your art. Just ask new-folkies Ani DiFranco and Dar Williams about that. Dylan found the formula tired almost 40 years ago, leaving it in disgust for the kicks an electric band could provide. But for more than a decade now, John Darnielle has been using exactly that formula, under the Mountain Goats moniker, to carve out a musical space both relevant and highly personal.
Part of this success lies within his distinctive song structures, which are almost always idiosyncratic dramatic monologues. His narrators sing with all the self-importance (although not quite the self-assurance) of an early Dylan or Phil Ochs, but rather than covering subjects of political injustice and hypocrisy, they are more interested in missing yams, mysterious monkeys, and the opening of baseball season. Thus he uses some of the constructs of the early 60s folk revival almost purely for aura, while giving his songs the delectable sense of unreliable narration rarely achieved outside of David Byrne.
The other personal quirk he brings, of course, is the tape hiss. Along with his frequent naming of places and fleshed out details in songs, the tape hiss brings a very specific sense of location to his songs.While this place is sometimes Marcus’s “old, weird America” it’s not always: some of the best tracks on Protein Source of the Future...Now! come from the 1994 cassette Yam, the King of Crops, which if not inspired by Achebe’s Things Fall Apart at least shares with it an interest in the same African tribes. But while these physical references change wildly, Darnielle’s persona is a constant. While the sense of place is no less strong for it, whatever “place” these songs come from is seemingly not fixed in the boundaries of our universe, but only by those of Darnielle’s back porch.
Protein Source of the Future...Now! is only one of three discs released this month compiling Mountain Goats’ material previously only available on vinyl, but it is the best. Indeed, Darnielle’s recording process has remained so consistent (which is not to say unvaried) that it suffers none of the predictable pitfalls of a compilation disc. The music here all feels more than comfortable together: if anything, the contrasting concerns of Yam farming and the arrival of the Easter Bunny add to the intrigue of Darnielle’s backwoods universe. The songs here are some of Darnielle’s best: confident, engaging, and almost never lagging in energy.
The material is so consistent, in fact, that were it not stamped with compilation status, it may have received deserved recognition come years end. As it is, coming as a mere repackaging along with three other Mountain Goats releases in this year alone, it’s likely to be forgotten – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t music you would love, and need to hear.
Reviewed by: Ryan Hamilton
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01