Primitive radio gods.

April 6, 2009
John Darnielle and John Vanderslice. Photo by Swatson Images.

John Darnielle and John Vanderslice. Photo by Swatson Images.

Tonight I’ll go to Bloomington, Ind., to see the final date of John Vanderslice and John Darnielle’s (of the Mountain Goats) “Gone Primitive” tour, where the pair will perform individual acoustic sets at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater.

According to my Last.fm stats, Vanderslice and the Mountain Goats are among the five artists I listen to most on my computer, so this billing is a match made in heaven. I’ve long counted Darnielle among my favorite songwriters, but in the past couple of years I’ve grown increasingly fond of Mr. Vanderslice and his crystalline, heartrending recordings.

Vanderslice will release his first full-length album in two years, Romanian Names, on Bloomington’s Dead Oceans label on May 19. The label has posted a preview MP3, “Fetal Horses,” which you can download here.

Among those familiar with his work, Vanderslice is known for his studio chops — a not altogether surprising fact when you learn Vanderslice owns a highly regarded recording facility, Tiny Telephone, in San Francisco. Vanderslice has recorded albums for a number of household-name indie artists, including the Moutain Goats, Spoon, Death Cab For Cutie and others. Along the way he pioneered a signature style using all-analog equipment that either he or somebody else coined “sloppy high-fi.” Vanderslice’s own recordings have grown increasingly less sloppy over the years, culminating with his 2007 release “Emerald City,” which sounds downright pristine, almost as if it was dipped in chrome.

According to Dead Oceans, Romanian Names marks a new direction for Vanderslice, who wrote all of the songs on piano or guitar in a makeshift basement studio prior to even setting foot in Tiny Telepone. The result, Dead Oceans says, is a Vanderslice album that’s unusually light on knob-twiddling-as-songwriting and features a renewed “emphasis on melody and structure.”

To these ears, “Fetal Horses” doesn’t sound appreciably different from prior Vanderslice recordings — and that’s cool with me. I’ll buy it regardless, as Vanderslice is one of only three or four artists whose new releases inspire me to head to the record store on release day. In the meantime, I’ll continue promoting him to anyone who will listen (or read). He’s an underappreciated talent whose songs — narratively compelling, beautifully sung and, more often than not, uncommonly moving — burrow into your brain like poetry.

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BEST OF 08: “Sax Rohmer #1” by The Mountain Goats

December 17, 2008

[Talkin’ the best songs of 2008.]

John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats.

John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats.

My fondness for The Mountain Goats borders on the irritatingly geeky. Yet my ardor pales in comparison to that of a number of the people at the Mountain Goats concert I attended in Chicago last October. Like They Might Be Giants in their heyday, The Mountain Goats has a certain cachet with well-educated white introverts with busy minds who, I assume, identify with the the unabashedly bookish and feverishly adenoidal John Darnielle.

Darnielle — the band’s founder and driving force — is nothing if not feverish. His songs — which are almost always first-person narratives and which, except for those on 2005’s The Sunset Tree, are almost always fictional — are singularly powerful. Words that come to mind when I think of them: Desperation. Intensity. Mania.

Many MG songs are vaguely apocalyptic, referring obliquely to the rapturous dawning of a new day or the destructive ending of an old one. Whatever is happening to Darnielle’s characters — however base or insignificant their lives are in The Grand Scheme — is blown up to big screen proportions. Although they’re often miserable people, they speak and act with the decisive fire of characters in epic films or the Bible.

Darnielle is a wickedly astute lyricist. He has a skill for descriptive writing rarely found in singer-songwriters, and he inhabits his carefully crafted characters with the conviction of a method actor. It’s easy for a singer to express scream-at-God, scream-at-yourself or scream-at-your-lover fury, but it’s much harder to write a song where that fury has a narrative context that gives it real, lasting resonance. Darnielle does that — and does it better than any working singer-singwriter, in my opinion.

Darnielle also has a knack for the cathartic anthem. A perfect example is “Sax Rohmer #1” from this year’s Heretic Pride, one of my favorite songs — and videos — of the year. Check it out, and then check out Darnielle’ excellent blog (it’s certainly the best blog by a popular musician I’ve ever encountered), Last Plane To Jakarta.