The Mountain Goats
The Baptist Generals
815 V St. NW
Washington, DC, 20001
The Mountain Goats
OK so last year we get this offer to play a festival in Bialystok, Poland, and I get extremely amped for it because you know how when you're in high school you land on something to get into and it's your personal secret deal? One of mine was Polish poetry, especially Tadeusz Różewicz but also Alexsander Wat and Miron Białoszewski (who wrote one of my favorite poems of all time) and also Anna Swir. So I'm very excited about this offer to go Poland, but Wurster can't make it, either because he's touring with another band or because he refuses to perform in a country which has never won an Olympic gold medal in basketball, I forget which, and I don't want to go alone, because going to a new place is just more fun with your bandmates, bands are families, not the bad kind of family, really bands are the intersection of sitcoms and tableaux vivants, I will elaborate further on this theory at a future date. So we played a John-and-Peter duo set for the first time in a long time -- I think maybe since 2006, possibly 2007.
It was really cool: the duo set was how we lived from 2001-2007. On the Transcendental Youth tour last year we started structuring the set for a little duo space on either side of a solo section in the middle, playing "It Froze Me" and sometimes "Jenny" with just me and Peter on one side of the set-break and "Ezekiel 7 and the Permanent Efficacy of Grace" with just me and Wurster on the other. Then, in January of this year, Wurster and I played a few songs in New York and again it was way cool, and I got all chin-strokey thinkin' about "oh yes, the dynamics of a duo vs. a trio vs. a quartet, the particular qualities inherent to various arrangements," etc., I like to think about stuff like that and in those sorts of terms, I am a record collector and music nerd, that is how we operate.
Peter and I toured our asses off back in the pre-trio days, but that was before our ascent to the absolute upper echelon of global media saturation. We are pleased to report that a year-plus worth of talking about touring the Mountain Goats in alternate configurations to all-ages rooms is yielding its first fruits this June, in the form of the TUTTLINGEN WARRIORS TOUR 2013, whose name is an inside joke, I'll tell you about it between songs at some point during the tour, I have too much else still to cover here to get into it right now. We're bringing out the Baptist Generals, one of our favorite bands, who have a new album coming out -- their first in years -- and for Peter and I this is a huge event, like on an "unheard post-Marquee Moon pre-Adventure Television album discovered" level: some bands you know will someday get the acclaim that's due them and this is one of them. Their new album is so deeply moving I'm not even going to get into it right now, here, try this, see what I mean, are you enjoying the continuing effects of José Saramago on my use of the comma, I hope so because I can no longer help it.
We're hitting several places we haven't been before and some we haven't managed to get back to in years (what's up Hoboken), and yes, in case you missed it in the avalanche of dependent clauses above: all dates are all-ages. All of them. Hell yes, I say, it's about time, sorry it took so long. I have been squirreled away cobbling together a master setlist through the early months of this year (will we be attempting "Fall of the Star High School Running Back"? signs point to "yes") and Peter and I will be getting into rehearsal sometime this month, where I look forward to hearing "no, John, that's not how you played it on the tape" at least once and realistically more times than once.
I'll have more news on stuff soon but let's face facts, we're pushing up against a thousand words here, the trend of the times is toward brevity, don't tell JD that he'll cry. Peter and I will be rocking the cities you see in the yellow post-it to your right this June and we hope to see you there; if you follow a link and the tickets aren't on sale yet, don't panic, they should be up by later this week at the latest. Also don't panic under other circumstances if you can help it, panic is seldom a helpful or pleasant emotional state, unless you happen to be writing a piece called "What I Look Like When I Panic," then maybe OK. The Darnielle-and-Wurster duo tour is presently unscheduled, but will, when it arrives, include a Q & A about the lesser-known works of Bob Ezrin, so be sure to dust off your copies of Steve Hunter's Swept Away. Bonus points if you can hum the title track without looking it up. I don't know what, if anything, you can actually use the bonus points for, but this, too, will be addressed at a future date.
The Baptist Generals
On The Baptist Generals' sophomore album, the word "heart" repeats eight*** times. The Denton, TX band, known for its haunting, claustrophobic take on drunken folk, needed ten full years to bare its hearts—one of which is in the album title, Jackleg Devotional to the Heart, a name that songwriter Chris Flemmons conjured shortly after he recorded, and then trashed, the album's first attempt in 2005.
Flemmons goes so far as to call this his "love album," and it's an apt description—though love through The Baptist Generals' eyes is plenty complicated. Jackleg's hearts don't resemble valentines. No smooth curls into a final point. The band's vibraphones, guitarrons and ambient feedback combine like a mess of ventricles, aortas and veins—not to mention, from the sound of it, all of the blood spilled while Jackleg lurched for years toward an eventual finish line.
"After this bad accident, I wanna follow your scent, but you won't answer my call," Flemmons cries in the kick-down-the-door, Crazy Horse-loving opener of "Dog That Bit You." And it's hard to tell who he's pleading with in this harpsichord-driven take on scorned love. Maybe himself.
For years, Flemmons did everything he could to avoid facing Jackleg, from hiding in his house to obsessing over out-of-town condo developers (long story). His biggest project, a successful music festival he founded called 35 Denton, kept him in the local spotlight, which meant he continued hearing plenty about his critically-acclaimed 2003 full-length debut No Silver/No Gold. The dog kept biting.
Which meant, eventually the songs won out.
Finally getting those on tape meant Flemmons needed to let go. A self-proclaimed control freak, Flemmons had to strike a deal before his band mates would try again. The Generals' integral cast of local, underappreciated experimental-folk heroes (who've played with St. Vincent, Mind Spiders, History at our Disposal, The War on Drugs, Robert Gomez, Stumptone, etc.) claimed control of the production, using Flemmons' demo versions as guidance once the songwriter left the studio. The master tapes remained under the vigilant watch of producer Stuart Sikes (Loretta Lynn, Cat Power, The Walkmen, Modest Mouse, The White Stripes), co-producer, collaborator and ally Jason Reimer and long-time Baptist Generals mainstay Peter Salisbury. Without all of whom, we might all still be long-awaiting a new Baptist Generals album.
While longtime fans continued making SMiLE jokes, Flemmons made the most of his reduced workload, even exploring new corners of sound for the band. "Turnunders and Overpasses" rides a rollicking, almost-krautrock acoustic guitar line into a collision of orchestral strokes and minor-key noise. As Flemmons wonders aloud, "I saw your colors flying over me," high-pitched feedback fills the song's empty spaces, like a cue out of Fantasia. Meanwhile, the noisy, kitchen-sink opening of "Floating" melts into Flemmons at his most comfortable and familiar: "I'll go there once again, yes I was—will you hold my hand and dream with me?" he sings, his damaged, slightly nasal register dominating over only a acoustic guitar, as if he were still performing on Denton street corners in the late '90s. "You look familiar—will you hold my hand and dream with me?" he continues, the song's slightly askew poetry making way for a sad hello. Or a climactic goodbye.
"It might be saying a lot, or nothing at all," Flemmons dryly says from his Denton home. That's as close as he gets to explaining Jackleg's lyrics—but he is willing to frame the songs in terms of love, and not just because of the bad relationships that inspired at least a few of its songs. Getting the record done meant having a "healthy relationship" with the tracks, which he reached by playing them over the years at intimate concerts powered solely by palm-sized amplifiers. Most of the current band mates were along for those rare gigs, which Flemmons attributes to eventually trusting them with producing this record.
Call it a love record, then. It's the kind of love Flemmons had to figure out in the ten years since No Silver/No Gold, a period in which he admits he's fallen in love with a wild spectrum of music—the Ethiopiques series, saxophonist Archie Shepp, film scorer Meredith Willson, and plenty more. That wide spectrum only befits Jackleg's repeated need to buck genre; in fact, the 2005 version of the album hit the trash heap because "it sounded like any other indie rock-type band," Flemmons admits. Yet when making sense of how that music has impacted him over such a long period, he returns to the heart. Specifically, he refers to studies about the heart by 16th century British researcher William Harvey.
"He wanted to understand the vascular system," Flemmons says, "and it's largely very dry reading. He was vivisecting mammals and speculating about valves in veins. But what was fascinating, considering he was commissioned by the King, was that he had ideas about the spirit and where exactly it resided: 'You can't see warmth in water, therefore very much the same with seeing the spirit in a living organism.' Occasionally I hear music that is so in sync with me, right down to the alpha level… surely it seeps in. What the conduit makes in the music I write is hard to say."
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