Sep 132011

In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!

Claremont, CA’s The Mountain Goats began as the alter-ego of singer-songwriter John Darnielle, who’d record raw versions of songs on cassettes to distribute to friends in the early 1990s. Since then, Darnielle’s project has added a few members and become a major force in the indie world. Albums like The Sunset Tree, Get Lonely and most recently All Eternals Deck have received serious critical praise and become favorites among the college radio crowd. One might guess that’s primarily because of the compelling figure cut by Darnielle; his mix of brutal honesty and quirky humor speaks to listeners much in the way an artist like Ben Folds does, although instead of a massive piano between Darnielle and his audience, there’s usually just an acoustic guitar.

As the Mountain Goats’ catalog has grown to encompass 14 studio albums plus numerous EPs — Darnielle’s nothing if not prolific — the role of covers has diminshed for the act. Despite some noteworthy recent examples we’ve written up, such as the Goats’ loving tribute to Styx at Lollapalooza or their Jawbreaker homage commissioned by the A.V. Club, most of Darnielle’s cover work comes from the beginning of his career. Whether that’s because budding artists need to fill out their catalog with others’ songs or if Darnielle’s just grown more comfortable with his own songwriting as time has passed, all of the pieces we’re looking at below hail from the first four years of the Goats’ output, 1991-1995. They’re excellent examples of Darnielle’s trademark vocal delivery, guitar stylings, unique sense of humor and of course his budding musicianship.

The Mountain Goats – This Magic Moment (The Drifters cover)

This cover of a 1960s classic first recorded by Ben E. King and The Drifters perfectly embodies the low-fi aesthetic that the Mountain Goats championed for almost a decade. You can hear the recording tape hum in the background — the song was released only on cassette, in fact, and came from the act’s first release, Taboo VI: The Homecoming. You can also pick up what sounds like a television playing in the background; so committed was Darnielle to low-fi recording that he wouldn’t even turn off the TV when he was making music (or he just didn’t care). Darnielle has stated that he never thought Taboo VI would receive any kind of major release or acclaim and was meant mostly for friends, but still, it undeniably features the Mountain Goats sound that would win over many a fan in the next few decades.

The Mountain Goats – I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry (Hank Williams, Sr. cover)

A few tracks further into Taboo VI, we can hear the second cover Darnielle committed to tape, a full-band take on Hank Williams Sr.’s iconic ode to solitude… although one almost wonders if he just recorded his vocals over a karaoke track of the song, since it’s the only number on Taboo VI with full instrumentation. Curiously, Darnielle has also opted to record a woman speaking Spanish over the song’s lyrics. Darnielle’s gone on record as saying that “Lonesome” is one of the few songs on Taboo he’d “stand behind if pressured,” so there’s clearly something about this track that speaks to him… besides a Hispanic woman, of course.

The Mountain Goats – The Sign (Ace of Base cover)

Here Darnielle fully embraces the quirky side that’s won him so many fans with a cover of this ultra-cheesy 1993 dance hit by Swedish popsters Ace of Base. This cover features co-vocalist/bassist Rachel Ware, a longtime friend and collaborator of Darnielle, whose backing vocals add a lot of depth to the cover (if such a word applies). By the final chorus, Darnielle gives himself over to the lyrics totally, shouting them at the top of his lungs, and it’s a moment that’s simultaneously a little hilarious and totally awesome. It opened up my eyes.

The Mountain Goats – FM (Steely Dan cover)

Darnielle included this cover of jazz-fusion outlet Steely Dan’s “FM” on 1995’s Sweden. “FM” may provide the best example of a stereotypical Mountain Goats song here — serious guitar strumming and earnestly delivered lyrics wrapped up in a small package (the song clocks in at 1:46, a good deal shorter than the jamtastic original). In fact, many listeners might feel that this song becomes imminently more listenable when divorced of its endless noodling and corny keyboards. We might as well just attribute this song to Darnielle himself and move on.

The Mountain Goats – You’re So Vain (Carly Simon cover)

Perhaps the most interesting Mountain Goats-related cover story concerns this Carly Simon number, recorded for Hail and Farewell, Gothenburg, the album intended to follow Sweden. A recording problem caused Darnielle to cancel the album and seek to destroy all the master tapes (apparently it was recorded at too high a speed), but a few have leaked. There’s no doubt that this cover’s excellent, and it’s a shame it was never officially released — it’s unmistakably Simon’s song, yet only as Darnielle could deliver. Most uniquely, Darnielle opts not to even sing the chorus lyrics — who doesn’t know them, after all? The song speaks for itself.

Check out more from The Mountain Goats on their official website!

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  2 Responses to “In the Spotlight: The Mountain Goats”

Comments (2)
  1. Also essential in the MG covers cannon are his version of Neutral Milk Hotel’s Two-Headed Boy, and the amazing mashup of Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back In Town” with R. Kelly’s “Ignition [Remix].” Mind-blowingly good.

  2. Also check out “Tell Me On a Sunday,” an Andrew Lloyd Weber cover.

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