Thursday, September 1, 2011

On Jack and Faye

Before I became a Mountain Goats fan, I did not know the term "noob." Really. It took me a while to figure it out, but sometime in early 2007, after having it repeatedly hurled at me as an epithet on a Mountain Goats computer forum, I finally had to look it up on urban dictionary.

I first heard the Mountain Goats back in 1999 or so, when, on a lark, I downloaded "Song for Dana Plato" illegally on Napster. Plato had just overdosed, and I was looking for an audio file of her interview with Howard Stern, and found this song, instead. But, sadly enough, I didn't really get into the band until I stumbled upon them again when the Sunset Tree was released. And that made me a noob. There was a galaxy of obscure and obtuse songs floating around me, dancing near me but too far away to hear. I could smell them, but I couldn't touch them. People on the forums bragged and worshipped them. They called out for them at shows and squealed when Mr. Darnielle complied.

Everytime I made a comment about "This Year" or "No Children," the stink of antipathy dripped through the screen and keyboard, up through my fingers and down my spine, or over my body at a show, like a stinky layer of concert sweat. There was a whole graveyard full of zombie tunes with names and words but no way for me to get to them. I was chastised if I even tried. "Song for Roger Maris." "Standard Bitter Love Song #1." "Shower."

Jack and Faye was my first entry into the world of Mountain Goats rarities. It wasn't particularly rare, as the band's official website actually includes a link to the digital-only four-track EP. But, it wasn't released by any record label and it certainly wasn't available on ITunes. So, to me, a noob, it was rare.

What's more, there was no apparent official artwork for the E.P. I had to find fan-made artwork instead, from a long-time fan that seemed to know more about the Mountain Goats than I knew about myself. And so it seemed rarer even still, taking two separate sources in order to get a full set. And even though the artwork wasn't sanctioned by the band, it was about as perfect a package as one could expect. A gem sought and found.

And it's okay to treat Jack and Faye with some levity. It is jaunty foursome of tunes, not getting quite as serious as other songs the band put out around the same time frame. This is no "Snow Crush Killing Song." This is a couple of musicians having fun, and playing hard and dirty.

The first song is "Raid on Entebbe." My mind finds no easy tie between the song and the Charles Bronson movie of the same name. I imagine it is about a family like mine, fighting in the living room, and in the front yard, a sister fighting with a mother and the narrator just trying to find peace. Maybe the movie is playing in the background as the fight spirals. Maybe it is a subtle analogy with the plot of the movie, where the government of Israel plans a daring mission to rescue hostages from a hijacked aircraft. Maybe the narrator is Israel, and he is saving his hostage sister from his terrorist mom. Or maybe it was just on the tube when Mr. Darnielle wrote the song. It doesnt much matter. The song is fast and loose and rhythmic, it passes by without seeming effort. The players are having a party -- the words complement the music as to how they sound as much as what they mean.

The next track is "Adair." The song starts off showing us one of the characters' scars, quite literally, running from her temple all the way down to her chin. Like a typical Darnielle creation, these people are wounded. But the wind is still in their hair and they are smiling. "I'm far away from where I used to be," and so the future is behind them. For now, there is no disappointment. "You are just where you said you would be." The song is all up and down me. Each time I hear it, I have to focus to avoid shivering.

The digital flip side starts with "An Inscription at Salonae," most notable perhaps for its unique cadence, not quite reggae, but certainly something other than folk. Mr. Darnielle and Ms. Ware sing in a harmony that manages to twist their voices into one, creating a tone that mirrors neither of those of the separate individuals. And the lyrics, a series of codes and unexplained phrases, still pop out line by line, creating quotes that ring in your head long after the song is over. "I loved you more than I loved my own life, I was falling to pieces." "Spring breaking out gradually." "Like a flower caught in the overgrowth, falling, falling to pieces."

Finally, there is "There Will Always Be An Ireland," which captures a moment of time separate from that sung about in the song. "Strange black birds." Every time I listen, I see them up above me. Every time I listen, I hear their wings flap hard against the wind, swooping to attack me. This song is a woman I knew, with gonzo bats tattooed up and down her rib cage. She visited me once for a weekend, and I somehow instantly felt like it was me and her against the world. But it only lasted a weekend. Birds swarmed over us like the minutes on a clock and she quickly dripped away. This song is the lonely drips of gonzo bat black that remain in her stead. "What we did, the things we said. Your hand resting on my head."

And as I listen to Jack and Faye over and over again on repeat, replaying particular verses and phrases and intonations over and over again, I find there is no levity left in me for these four real, genuine, passionate tracks. The sun is a highway flare. A Greek chorus of women dressed in purple, banging on tambourines and beating on cymbals. Hypnotic images of forgotten emotions, just boiling below the surface. It took time to notice, but this four-track is no rarity, no gem to be collected. It is as serious and as emotional a set of songs as any that Mr. Darnielle has written. He has described it as having grown melancholy over time, and it took me some time to understand this to be true. And it is true.

And so with Jack and Faye, my first tMG "rarity," not really a rarity at all, I learned my first tMG lesson. While vinyl may be fun to collect, and cassettes even more fun, music is no collectible. And music is no commodity.

By P. William Grimm. Mr. Grimm makes his home in San Francisco’s Mission District. His novel The Seventh was published in 2009, and his writings have been published in multiple on-line literary journals such as Annalemma Magazine and Eclectica.

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