The Mountain Goats
Zopilote Machine / Nothing for Juice
1994/1996 / 2005
A / B+
ith three studio albums under his belt, John Darnielle appears to have ditched his lo-fi roots forever. And as critical acclaim for those three albums has piled up, the fans championing his older work have quieted down. The battle between old-Goats die-hards and new-Goats converts has been dominated by the converts. We old-Goats fans have been called backwards and elitist—opposed to both creative evolution and the large-scale distribution of and publicity for a cult artist. But no! We merely love the understated elegance, the cryptic symbolism, and the far-flung literary allusions of his older songs.
This battle between old and new should end in a truce. I’m a stalwart old-Goats man myself, but The Sunset Tree hasn’t left my CD player since its release. But I fear that neo-Goats fans aren’t doing the opposite: luckily, the good people at 3 Beads of Sweat have repressed two classic early Mountain Goats albums—1994’s Zopilote Machine and 1996’s Nothing for Juice and made it easier than ever to investigate Darnielle’s early career.
For Mountain Goats fans of any age or denomination, this review ends here. Snap these albums up immediately. The indomitable classic “Going to Georgia” justifies the purchase price of Zopilote Machine. A cover of legendary bluesman Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound on my Trail” does the same for Nothing for Juice. So quit all applications, shut down the computer, grab your car keys, and post your fawning praise in the comments section after a few listens.
For the rest of you out there, don’t worry—these aren’t merely documents for completists. Zopilote Machine in particular is one of the most energetic and vibrant albums in Darnielle’s catalogue. Haphazardly backed by the four-woman Bright Mountain Choir, Darnielle delivers a concentrated blast of emotion and imagery, riddled with the wonderful songwriting motifs that have typified his career.
That being said, surprises lie in store for the listener. These songs don’t announce their dramatic intent immediately. Indeed you might hear them several times before they hit you. Oh, but when they do…
“Grendel’s Mother” exhibits this perfectly. The guitar strums along unremarkably, the lyrics are delivered in a pensive drawl—nothing over-emotive here—but when Darnielle hits the chorus of “I will carry you home in my teeth” the sadness and anger of the beast’s mother will put a lump in your throat.
“Orange Ball of Love” and “Orange Ball of Hate” also merit special praise. The first is a quirky story of a man bitterly in love with a snitch. Terse, brilliant verses abound—“Well, I know you’ll be turning me in / But I also know your real name’s not Amy Lynn” and “I know that you're wearing a wire / But as the sun becomes a blazing orange ball of fire / I lose interest in this and other such inconsequential questions” being among the best. “Orange Ball of Hate” is, contrary to the title, a stunning love song anchored by the gee-whiz sincerity of its chorus—“Sure do love you”—repeated at the end of each verse. In this song, Darnielle eschews the narrative form that dominates his recent work, instead opting for a series of poetic moments in the relationship.
Listen—I could praise nearly every song, so I’ll have to cut it short. You know what you’re getting with these two albums: 30+ songs of enthusiastic, but not virtuosic guitar strumming sometimes accompanied by a bass, or, ever-so-rarely, an organ or the screeching electric guitar of Graeme Jeffries (featured on three songs in Nothing for Juice). But more importantly, you get 30+ songs from John Darnielle at his creative peak. Arguably. But I’m not interested in the argument; I’m too busy singing along.
Reviewed by: Bryan Berge
Reviewed on: 2005-05-09