The Sunset Tree (4AD)
NEVER LACKING A DITTY OR A HORRIBLE STORY FROM HIS YOUTH, JOHN DARNIELLE RELEASES HIS 13TH ALBUM AS THE MOUNTAIN GOATS.
Why can't every album be like this? Why can't every album make you so dangerously addicted, you fear you might soon have to quit? Why? 'Cause the world just don't work that way, and, if it did, we'd all be overstimulated wrecks. Artists like John Darnielle (a.k.a. the Mountain Goats) don't come along that often-and that's a good thing, 'cause life needs highlights, not a steady stream of mediocrity. On The Sunset Tree, his 13th album, the ever-prolific Darnielle continues to use music as his outlet, this time to work through the aftermath of an abusive childhood. "I'm in the living room watching the Watergate hearings while my stepfather yells at my mother/ Launches a glass across the room straight at her head and I dash upstairs to take cover/ Lean in close to my little record player on the floor/ So this is what the volume knob's for/ I listen to dance music/ Dance music," he sings, his vocals raw with emotion on "Dance Music." The song is the cornerstone of the album, its infectious, upbeat nature at first seeming odd, then, when paired with the heavy subject matter, making complete sense. While Darnielle has always been able to translate his own dark truths into incredibly touching pop songs, The Sunset Tree finds him mastering the craft, this time with fuller, less lo-fi production by John Vanderslice. Whether it's the vengeful violin stabs of "Dilaudid," the emotional, list-making lyricism of "Broom People," the brokenhearted ambiguity of "Song for Dennis Brown," or the fist-pumping, survivalist mentality behind "This Year," Darnielle gives you more than enough reason to want to play The Sunset Tree again and again and again. (Jenny Tatone)
Talking Voice vs. Singing Voice (Tooth & Nail)
THIS BAND'S MELLOW, PSYCHEDELIC CHRISTIAN ROCK USED TO BE WORTH FORNICATING TO. NOW IT'S NOT EVEN WORTH SELF-ABUSING TO.
Reserved, unpretentious, duckling-clean, Bible-thumping indie rocker Jason Martin has produced some of the most compelling mope-rock albums this side of the Atlantic since 1993. As the Wundermensch and dictator-for-life of Tooth & Nail's faceless romantics Starflyer 59, Martin writes, sings and plays every instrument on the recordings-hiring temps to hold instruments onstage during tour season. There's no good excuse for Starflyer 59's obscurity. Its whole 12-year discography has been rock-solid, with each album exploring yet another means of crafting poignant, mercilessly catchy pop. Many of these are womb-sleepy, while others tickle the ears with a crushing wave of massive guitar fuzz. Regardless of the differing techniques employed on the album, the Starflyer 59 songwriting mantra goes like this: breathy vocals, minor chords, always in-the-pocket drums, all in perfect taste, amen. Also, in true indie tradition, just about every one of Martin's songs is infused with lyrical references to some girl, who by now is probably quite sick of being passive-aggressively criticized.
Problem is, that winning mantra seems to have deteriorated into empty lip service: Starflyer 59's latest album, Talking Voice vs. Singing Voice, is phoned-in, did-it-before/doing-it-again, mid-tempo placeholder crap. Sure, there are hooks to be had, and there are a couple of "hummers" that would be just lovely to discover-if Martin hadn't set the bar so high for himself with previous releases. But really, there is zero passion in Talking Voice. Go spend your money on the (finally) re-released Silver or Gold albums, or start your own band. There's nothing to see here, folks. (Corban Lester)