The Sunset Tree

Sometimes songs swell up inside with buoyant bursts of soul-succoring solace. Others are much more afflicting things, all barbs and stinging needles. The Sunset Tree by The Mountain Goats is a work almost entirely of this later and more lacerating songcraft. Starkly confessional, it is an album of anthems for the abused and all-but-lost.

Dedicated to his stepfather, The Sunset Tree documents main Mountain Goat John Darnielle’s adolescence of abuse at the hands of a man too tortured to refrain from recreating his own inherited hell. A spectral figure from the first cut, he haunts each and every song. Roaring through “Lion’s Teeth” and landing blows in “Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod,” his beastly presence drives Darnielle into the reckless caresses of “Broom People” and the drug-driven desperation of “Dilaudid.” From the foreboding tones of a treated piano through “Love Love Love” on into the too difficultly dispensed with memories of “Pale Green Things,” he remains lurking low even in more measured and mature reflections towards the record’s end. Through the threat of violence to the act itself and its long-lingering aftereffects, his stepfather is inescapably ominous.

As unfortunate as these experiences may be, it is Darnielle’s skill as a writer that makes their rendering so readily affecting. Honing his craft on a body of work that’s more fiction than firsthand, he applies his same sensibilities to these autobiographical pieces.

Imagery and realism compete and often collide. Taking on an appropriately animal form in “Lion’s Teeth,” the bellicose stepfather battles with Darnielle on the driveway. With “Up the Wolves” Darnielle makes metaphorical pleas for intervention as he cries out to his wolf-mother before breaking down into a Romulus-resembling rage. Each image emerges as the clear product of careful and considered construction, a trademark of Darnielle’s deftly deliberate style.

His command of descriptive detail is on full display as well. “Broom People” suggests something amiss by listing off a common set of features from Darnielle’s childhood home. From the “all sorts of junk in the unattached spare room” to the “white carpet thick with cat hair,” he describes a scene that leads him to “write down good reasons to freeze to death” and take a lover as a means of escape. Confronting the violence he grew up into more directly with “Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod,” he recalls the “smothering waves” or his stepfather’s “thickening hand.”

These illustrative flourishes make for vivid scenes and sequences made all that much more striking by Darnielle’s delivery. While his trembling tenor has always held its own through innumerable characters and pretenses, here it rolls out on to tape more radiant and exposed than ever. His voice is always up front giving due focus to his masterful word-working.

While this unyielding concentration on Darnielle emphasizes the album’s greatest strength, it also yields its only weakness. The accompaniment is all quite competent but very little of it stands out as unusually good. The grinding cello of “Dilaudid” and the percussive propulsion of “This Year” are two of the very few tracks that maintain any identity of their own apart from the lyrics.

Producer John Vanderslice remains uncharacteristically unobtrusive, confining the arrangements to their supporting roles. The greatest casualty here is Peter Hughes’ bass, with Vanderslice castrating otherwise buoyant lines leaving only a hazy whisper. The end result is surely the slickest recording that Darnielle has ever inhabited. Still some sense of longing remains for the hi-fi fuzz and bombast of tracks like “Palmcorder Yanja” from last year’s We Shall All Be Healed.

This one lingering desire is all but off-set by Darnielle’s flawless performance. For a man with an acoustic guitar who has always prided himself on not being one of those men with an acoustic guitar, it is as close as he’s come to a conventional singer-songwriter record. The masterwork he’s cultivated over ten years and 400 songs has finally been realized and its rewards are readily apparent.

Read an interview with John Darnielle and stream four tracks from The Sunset Tree on Amazon

Read more about The Sunset Tree from 4AD

Buy The Sunset Tree from Amazon

Sample more of The Mountain Goats on themountiangoats.net

Check out John Darnielle's music blog, Last Plane to Jakarta

And - for what it's worth - Tallahassee is still one of the greatest break-up records ever. Just listen to "No Children" to hear why.



Seeing strings swing into resonant harmony is such a shrill joy I’ll drone down days with an amp up and a bass down low. I’m a sucker for sympathetic vibration and I’ve been so since the sound of my first forays into amplified exploration. It’s amazing how some tones can coax another note beside them. Even more astounding still is how that sound can soothe by slowly stirring up an empathetic frequency inside a sorrowed soul. Certain songs may get so scratched into our souls, but certain tones can salve those same wide wounds with sonorous solace.

The self titled debut from Akron/Family is comprised almost entirely of such concordant comforts. Surely this assessment is somewhat subjective, but within me this record rings so strong and true that these reverberations suggest something universal. Its resonance shares the same depth at which Nick Drake is eternally enchanting and “Good Vibrations” is boundlessly blissful.

The invocation of such iconic sounds makes for a most daunting comparison, but Akron/Family holds up well enough against it. In fact, if such a soundscape can be imagined residing in a space between Pink Moon and Pet Sounds, the sonic identity of the group begins to take shape. Balance both those records between Piper at the Gates of Dawn and the image is almost complete.

More contemporary comparisons could be made to Joanna Newsom or Young God Records labelmate Devendra Banhart. Though they share a dedication to earnest expression and an affinity for acoustic accompaniment, Akron/Family distinguishes themselves from their freak-folk brethren by being far less intentionally anachronistic. Their foremost commitment is to the song itself and they will incorporate any necessary means to usher a track along its intended trajectory.

This approach is most apparent on “Italy.” Beginning with soft strums and the rhythmic creaking of an old wooden chair the song soon breaks into Beach Boy harmonies and ends with a Neurosis-sized slow stomping plod giving way to an Animal Collective assault of hollered hoots and tinkling kitchen table percussion. It’s a most unlikely amalgamation but one that renders a multi-movement eight-minute epic that is constantly captivating.

Yet even more impressive then all this audio experimentation is the cohesive restraint with which it is employed. Akron/Family prove themselves to be that rarest iteration of avant-garde more restlessly driven to perfect through wrecking than render perfect wreckage.

The end result is an album of unified feel and tone but varied tones and texture. All sound is meticulously cluttered together into something all-at-once calmly chaotic and clamorously comforting. Mirthful joy merges with wide-eyed wonderment, reflections on beauty reflect beauty, and longing establishes itself as more of an end than the means. Distilled down through the insularity of the Akron/Family aesthetic, these sentiments gain gravity and resonate with a depth unlike anything else I’ve heard all year. This is an astonishingly well-developed debut from a band sure to be worth watching on into the future.

Listen to Akron/Family on MySpace

Further explore Akron/Family and buy the record directly from Young God Records.

Akron/Family is acting as the opening and backing band for the forthcoming Angels of Light tour. Michael Gira and the Angels of Light are one of the most consistently devastating live acts I have ever seen. Do not miss this!
Dates and details here.


Sincerely, Black Lipstick

Seven Shiners deep and they still sound sweet. Black Lipstick run the scene down here in Theoretical Texas. Of course with all the alcohol I guess my judgement’s somewhat stunted, but this band ruled with as much cool on back before I started steeping in this bar. Well, it’s really not a bar so much as just my darkened den, but for tonight Black Lipstick’s taken me to another place entirely with Sincerely, Black Lipstick.

Those in the know should know that this one’s just a bit more dour and weary than previous efforts. It’s not all about getting loaded and laid this time around; there’s a lot of loss and longing here too. Still, the whole of it rings true enough that it could be no one else but Black Lipstick.

For those unfamiliar the best introduction to the band is to address their liberal appropriation of underground icons. The Velvets are the most obvious inspiration, but there are also shades of Sonic Youth tuned in through Television’s contrast knob. Then there’s that yawning Malkmus yelp that makes me cry, “My, my slacker rock will never die!” Yet for as readily accessible and excessively depleted as these influences may be, Black Lipstick still stand apart from the swelling ranks of those whose songs summon similar stalwarts.

The differentiation comes in Black Lipstick’s uncanny knack for rendering every intended nuance sounding shrugged off or effortless. This comes partly from their skill and musicianship but mostly from something more intangible than that. They may invoke the sound of so many other bands, but nobody embodies a sense of feel like Black Lipstick. They are all-at-once friendly, familiar, and casually cathartic. One spin of the record is like a night out with friends spent bitching about what it is that ails you as you ale and lager your way back down into complacent contentment. In four bars and two lines or less they can sit you right down in a roadhouse knocking back beers with the band like you’d been best friends forever.

Both contributing to and benefiting from this friendly feel is the band’s overtly conversational lyrics. With their deadpan delivery and ironic sensibility all four singers can serve up otherwise wince-worthy words with enough non-committal conviction to make it work. Within the confines of some rap-rock mutation lines like “over the nation, all the haters bow to thee” would prove unbearable but here they sound right at home and almost charming. Such a predilection for hackneyed street jargon should come as no surprise from a band that opened their first release with the verse “I don’t care about shit, except for getting off and getting lit.” What’s surprising is that those lines evoke not a scowl but a smile and that Black Lipstick is still working that same mojo on into today.

Their secret to this and almost every other charm they offer is the lone girl of the group, Elizabeth Nottingham. Her harmonies and boy/girl barbs and trade-offs temper lead member Phillip Niemeyer’s fits of bravado and revisit the heights of his prior band, the late, great Kiss Offs. Nottingham’s drumming cannot be overlooked either. Her increasingly inventive style breaks her free of the Moe Tucker typecast she was tied down to and enables her to move her instrument from the backbeat to the forefront on songs like “Grandma Airplane” and “…” If there’s any fault at all to be found in this release it’s that their simply isn’t enough of Elizabeth.

Still, what lack may be left in her absence is sufficiently filled with the talents of the remaining three singers and songsmiths. Niemeyer turns over the controls to right hand man Travis Higdon more often than ever and even bassist Steve Garcia steps up to the mic on a couple tracks. All this interplay only accentuates the affability that proves to be their defining strength.
Even if not a great band, their amicable approximation of greatness makes Black Lipstick well worth a listen and even more deserving of a few rounds in their honor. So, here’s to you, Black Lipstick. And here’s to Shiner number eight.

Listen to killer opening track "B.O.B. F.O.S.S.E." courtesy of Peek-A-Boo Records

Buy Sincerely, Black Lipstick now from Peek-A-Boo

Explore other awesome artists on Peek-A-Boo like Palaxy Tracks and The Kiss Offs