Albums I Missed in 2011 (2nd edition): The Pains of Being Pure at Heart and The Mountain Goats

Belong by The Pains of Being Pure at Heart

Holy Smashing Pumpkins, Batman! I like this album, but it’s so much like Billy Corgan’s work (if a tad softer) in places that I actually checked to see if he or a former band member were involved. (The album is produced by Flood, who has previously produced Smashing Pumpkins.) Catch this vibe on the opening and title track: after a few seconds of chiming guitar with a nice deep rolling bass and rock-solid beat, everything gives way to a brief deep heavily distorted guitar riff that could have come from Siamese Dream.  

Fortunately the songwriting is strong with plenty of melodic flourishes, and the band has decent musical chops, so this release rises well above the level of derivation. The second track, “Heaven’s Gonna Happen Now,” is a highlight, a great melody with the band building nicely in each verse from a quiet bass and drums open with light guitar accents, building into a nice distorted driving end. I also like the regal “Anne With an E” with its ringing opening guitar, orchestral keyboards and what sounds like a dulcimer.  

“Even in Dreams” also resonates with me, providing a particularly strong and melodic chorus as lead singer Kip Berman sings “Even in dreams, I will not betray you.” It could be cheesy but it works with his voice and the minor keys. They make good use of keyboards, notably on “My Terrible Friend” with a keyboard bit that sounds like 1980s OMD. As with most of this album, it seems authentic so it works.  

All Eternals Deck by The Mountain Goats

In spite of the fact that they’ve released 13 studio albums, All Eternals Deck is the first Mountain Goats’ music I’ve listened to. (There’s only so much time in the day!) For many years, the “band” was just John Darnielle, but this is the third work in a row from the same threesome.  

Not being familiar with their earlier catalogue (and understanding from online poking that Darnielle’s move from lo-fi noodling to a more rock sound has not been well received by longtime fans – no surprise there), I can only listen to this record on its own merits, which are considerable. It showcases Darnielle’s high, carefully phrased and yet emotionally satisfying voice, and highly literate lyrics. (The album title refers to a Tarot card deck.) And although it’s not lo-fi, it’s still an ample demonstration of the power of “less is more.” Arrangements are simple but well executed: piano, guitar, drums, bass, violin. This is not “wall of sound” music.  

“Estate Sale Sign” is a great acoustic rocker with Darnielle singing in a fast, frantic style that perfectly suits the lyrics. “Birth of Serpents” is a nice, mid-tempo acoustic number with a joyous melody. With a name like “Outer Scorpion Squadron,” I expected some sort of thrash metal song. Instead it’s a lovely piano-based ballad, with a violin adding color. Strings are also used to great effect (I suspect it’s actually a keyboard) on the moody “Age of Kings.” “Damn the Vampires” is another favorite track, a simple and exquisitely aching track with a chorus that steps down quietly like walking down steps.  

If the rest of the Mountain Goats’ recordings are this strong, I’m going to be spending some money soon!

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