Sunday, August 28, 2011

On Hot Garden Stomp

When asked about the Alpha Couple, the fictional couple who has spent the better part of the past twenty years slowly grinding each other into the ground in one of the band's on-going song cycles, John Darnielle often responds that he feels as if he’s abusing the characters by forcing them to go on this way. That feeling of abuse represents, in part, an aggression of the songwriter who chooses not to write about the Western ideal of “courtly love,” but instead elects to force his characters into a modern perversion of that ideal. The Alpha Couple do love each other, but they will always continue to destroy each other.

There are no Alpha songs on Hot Garden Stomp, The Mountain Goats’ third full-length album, but the aggression of the songwriter is no less present. At this time, The Mountain Goats consisted of Darnielle, the songwriter and main force behind the project, along with the Bright Mountain Choir: Rachel, Sarah, Amy, and Rosanne (or, in the liner notes, “Rosaaanne”). The album is the last of the initial three albums released on cassette by Dennis Callaci’s Shrimper Records, all of which remain out of print. Yet of the three, Taboo VI: The Homecoming, The Hound Chronicles, and Hot Garden Stomp, it is Hot Garden Stomp that is the strongest as an album, and likely the most worthy of reissue.

As the songs on The Hound Chronicles showed a significant growth from the songs on Taboo VI, Hot Garden Stomp demonstrates further advances in Darnielle’s songwriting and many of the tropes found on Hot Garden Stomp will become standard among other early Mountain Goats releases. There are the more obvious connections, like two early “Going To” songs, Japan and Norwalk. There are also opaque references to Roman and Greek classics found in songs like “Love Hymn to Aphrodite,” and “Thanks for the Dress.”

Of the group, “Thanks for the Dress” is the most explained, and examining its origins may give some insight into Darnielle’s early process and inspirations. The liner notes provide a Latin quotation, another standard feature among the early releases, attributed to the Roman poet Ennius. In a deviation from his normal practice, however, Darnielle offers a translation of the quote, and writes: “see also side II, song #7,” i.e. “Thanks for the Dress.” The quote from Ennius is not attributed to a work, but it can be found in Ennius’ translation from Greek into Latin of Euripides’ Medea, which is what “Thanks for the Dress” is about. Darnielle doesn’t bother explaining this, though. For him, it’s much more important to get the song down and move on.

The urgency and temporality that characterizes Darnielle’s work in this period is clearly exemplified in the brief introduction he gives to “Love Hymn to Aphrodite,” in which he states: “Today is the 17th of April, Love Hymn to Aphrodite.” The time and attitude in which the work was produced has a direct effect on the work. And so, in contrast to the later The Life of the World to Come, for example, Hot Garden Stomp feels like a very youthful album. This youthfulness is part of the aggression of the songs, as well. In the liner notes, there is a quote from Romeo & Juliet written in all capitals, and gone over so as to appear bolded. “…Peace!” Darnielle copies, “I hate the word / As I hate Hell, all Montagues, and thee!” (I.i.70-71). There is no room for peace in the songs on Hot Garden Stomp.

Part of that aggression is manifested in the rough assembly of the work. The familiar wheel-grind of the tape deck is clearly audible as a monument to cheap production. At this time, Darnielle was still playing his first guitar—a cheap, three-quarter sized Hawaiian model—and a simple sounding Casio keyboard. Darnielle audibly goes out of tune on some songs, but boldly presses on anyway. The packaging itself is unpolished as well; the tape is packaged in a photocopied sheet of handwritten liner notes, hastily colored with crayon. It’s not a remarkably off-putting front, especially with regards to the musical scene from which it emerged, but it certainly doesn’t go out of its way to be welcoming. Furthermore, the price of the album certainly wouldn’t encourage the current trend of music commodity fetishism; when Hot Garden Stomp was released, the album sold for $3.00, postage paid.

The aggression is in the songwriting as well. When discussing the title track in a bit of live banter, Darnielle said that the “description of the room [was] fairly accurate” but that in order to spice up the song, he made the protagonist of the song “totally psychotic.” That same kind of sociopathic psychosis can be found on the opening track, “Pure Milk.” In that song, the narrator declares: you and me are gonna get drunk tonight. / We're gonna steal some tractors and head on into town, / find the main strip and start mowing them down.” It’s not conventional, but it’s certainly a compelling idea for an evening outing.

That kind of character building is one of the real strengths of Darnielle’s writing—he carefully selects details in order to give a clear idea of a character, without revealing too much. And in this song, one potentially crucial line that Darnielle sings reflects this intention: “don’t ignore the obvious.” All of the details Darnielle chooses to include are significant, possibly essential. In that light, “don’t ignore the obvious” is as much a hint as it is a warning. In the same way, Hot Garden Stomp is as much a good album as it is a clear signpost for what early Mountain Goats fans could expect in the years to come.

By Carl Schlachte. Mr. Schlachte is a graduate student and a poet living in New York City.

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