In a May New York Times Magazine feature on the nascent ascendancy of one-man bands in indie rock, Owen Pallett—the former Arcade Fire member who performs solo as Final Fantasy—characterized Durham's The Mountain Goats as a singer-songwriter, not a one-man band. "The stories he tells are more important, in a way, than the musical choices he's making," said Pallett.
It's a correct, if subtle, distinction: Since 1991, John Darnielle has been writing, recording and performing as The Mountain Goats. On his earliest records, Darnielle overloaded the microphone of a Panasonic boombox with his howling nasal voice, frenetic guitar playing and detail-driven, vivid songs. Since, Darnielle's expanded and refined his sound, working in proper studios with bona fide producers and stellar musicians, from avant-garde cellist Erik Friedlander to Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster. Still, listening to The Mountain Goats for bold instrumental ideas is a little like watching American Idol for a new voice in songwriting. It just doesn't happen.
Two fantastic new Mountain Goats EPs bolster Pallett's case because—whether collaborating with one of the country's most dazzling instrumentalists or recording by himself—the focus remains on Darnielle's text. Darnielle made the first, Satanic Messiah, at Baucom Road Studios in Monroe, N.C., multi-tracking piano, acoustic guitar, electric guitar and synthesizer with the help of longtime producer Scott Solter. Solter also helmed the sessions for Black Pear Tree, a collaboration between Darnielle and Kaki King, a singer and guitarist with a highly percussive style and unorthodox melodic proclivities. Like him, she got her start solo, slowly adding band mates to support her ideas. To a musician like Darnielle, who's always insisted that he's only competent at best, she works via an alien dexterity. He wrote these words, and she—with drums, her acoustic and lap steel guitars—helped expand their musical setting.
Together, these releases reflect a desperate, final, perhaps fatal sort of hope, an ultimate exasperation that still aims toward the light—or to anything, really. King sings just one song on the six-track Black Pear Tree, but her take on the titular opener is gripping and perfect. Darnielle's words teeter between the apocalypse ("I saw the future in a dream last night/ There was nothing in it") and progress (the narrator plants a tree, then ends the song, "Some day, I am going to walk out of here free"). Her voice—tiny and calm—handles the split with maddening patience, its unspoken uncertainty matching the text. "Bring Our Curses Home" and "Thank You Mario but Our Princess is in Another Castle" bear the same slow-and-steady traces, their passive treatment of tension putting Darnielle's nervous characters in sharp relief.
Likewise, on the four-track Satanic Messiah, there's the stunning image of Ethiopian peasants scrambling "in the dirt for [loose coins thrown by their governor] like ants around the queen" during the piano song "Gojam Province 1968." When at last they revolt, they prophesy improvement, albeit a slow one: "The country's gonna burn and we'll still have to wait our turn/ Last among contenders of the super-featherweights." The brilliant "Sarcofago Live" subtly describes the poor of Brazil being fortified by a death metal band, Sarcófago, an act that rose from their ranks: "We were feeling the full brunt of the age/ Guys from our neighborhood looking down at us," Darnielle sings above his guitar and a piano. "All of you all of you/ Rage rage rage." From the solo observer, it's a sobering glimpse at the hope of union and solidarity. It's a charge for the future, so long as there's something in it.
The Mountain Goats and Kaki King present The Last Happy Night of Your Life tour at Cat's Cradle Wednesday, Nov. 5, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15. Satanic Messiah, released in an edition of 666 double seven-inches, will be available at the show. The tracks are also available digitally at www.satanicmessiah.com using the pay-what-you-will Radiohead model ($6.66 is, of course, the suggested price). Black Pear Tree will be on sale at the show as well. Both are available for purchase at www.3bos.com and through www.beggarsgroupusa.com.