The Mountain Goats – Nothing for Juice

The Mountain Goats
Nothing for Juice

With the possible exception of Guided by Voices, there is not a more intimidating indie-rock catalog to a newbie than that of the Mountain Goats. For years I’ve heard of John Darnielle’s brilliance, and for years I’ve avoided his work, simply for fear of buying the wrong document. The usual suspects (friends, music websites) provided no consensus starter disc, and each review of his recent work came out lukewarm. To make matters worse, people speak reverently of Darnielle’s early 1990s cassette-only releases, how they wore them down, let his boombox-recorded pop-folk change their lives.

So I was both excited and intimidated when asked to review Nothing for Juice, a re-release of a 1996 Darnielle album. So I did as much homework as I could, namely, getting a hold of Darnielle’s three most recent albums, Tallahassee, We Shall All Be Healed, and the just-released The Sunset Tree. And since that’s basically all I have access to, that’s the context with which I will approace Nothing for Juice.

I was initially thrown by the relative recording quality of Nothing for Juice. Having heard plenty of Darnielle’s penchant for recording straight into a boombox, Nothing for Juice sounds acceptably lo-fi, though whether this is due to a step up in technology for 1996 Darnielle or a decent remastering job, I can’t say. Darnielle’s voice has its trademark nasal edge to it, and at its best he still weaves it around an acoustic guitar in a way that makes it seem sad and touching and naïve all at once. Darnielle opens the album singing “Down in the South Bronx / Down at home,” and you’re immediately drawn into a time and place undoubtedly not your own, but one that has all of the adolescent longing, all the snow days and simple crushes of your own home.

Darnielle fares best on his simplest tracks (Rachel Ware, who sings with Darnielle on many of the tracks, is low-key enough not to distract). “I Will Grab You By the Ears” and “It Froze Me” are both endearing, lovely acoustic tracks. His cover of Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound on My Trail” exposes the pop song that was never really there, but it sounds like a revelation anyway. The songs here are shorter than on his recent records, his storytelling less involved, less clever, but what he lacks in polish he makes up for in little splashes of color and personality that just aren’t as prevalent in his recent works. The angry electric guitar and quivering violin of “Full Flower” is an anomaly amongst all of the sparse acoustic guitar, but it provides just enough flair in the middle of the album.

The end of the album finds Darrnielle going places, as he seems wont to do (Kansas, Reykjavik, and Scotland on this record), and they are quintessential Darnielle tracks, if such things do exist. It would be impossible for me to label this “the place to start” for MG newbies. It seemed to work for me, though depending on my mood, I find the newer albums just a bit more clever, if slightly more uneven. Nothing for Juice does, however, make me think that earlier Darnielle recordings are not so fuzzy and rare as they once seemed.