The Mountain Goats

Beat the Champ

Written by: LF on 14/08/2015 15:05:16

The Mountain Goats is an indie folk rock project of singer-songwriter and guitarist John Darnielle. For a time he was the only member of the band but by now he often collaborates on his recordings with other musicians, the only one which rings a bell with me being drummer Jon Wurster who also plays in Superchunk. Even though "Beat the Champ" is the 15th studio album released under this moniker, I can't say that I'm familiar with the band at all, but it's a happy case of "better late than never" as I have enjoyed getting into this record very much.

The album explores Darnielle's childhood infatuation with the world of wrestling and plays like an emotional musical that recounts the drama of this world while presenting real childhood heroes of his with songs like "The Legend of Chavo Guerrero" and "The Ballad of Bull Ramos". It's sound is warm and alluring and invites the listener to engage with a drama of heroic victories and crushing defeats, no doubt owing to the fact that Darnielle has been trying to capture the sense of wonder he felt about this world when he was a boy. Some songs are uncomplicated everyday-vibe stories while others channel a wild sense of danger and mystery and thus the album gets around nicely while exploring this world in imaginative detail.

It's a very warm sounding album overall with songs that vary intriguingly in style through the use of instruments as organ, strings and woodwinds that complement the use of guitars, keyboards, and various percussion. We're led in slowly with "Southwestern Territory" that calmly introduces what sounds like the everyday routine of a wrestler before the album really kickstarts with the up-tempo pace of "The Legend of Chavo Guererro". One of the first highlights of the album, "Foreign Object", then further branches out the musical territory of the album by introducing a catchy southern rhythmicity that supports a shivering vocal style, reminiscent of Andrew Jackson Jihad, in which dramatic lyrics like the refrain of "I'm gonna stab you in the eye with a foreign object" is delivered.

This compelling style is dominating across the middle of the record, providing memorable pieces of lyrics during songs like the high-energy "Choked Out" as well as the more gentle "Heel Turn 2" which lets the piano into the foreground. The southern rhythms I mentioned before are also used later on in the intense flamenco-like music of "Werewolf Gimmick", while other styles similarly add to the texture of the sound like the sliding country feel of "Animal Mask" or the jazzy "Fire Editorial" that leads into a dramatic spoken-word piece called "Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan".

Towards the end, the album slows down with a batch of calm, acoustic-sounding songs that seem to sound increasingly sleepy. It's a very well-rounded album in general with an engaging concept that doesn't seem too forced, but admittedly the first 2/3 are the ones that are mostly worth revisiting. A bunch of songs stand out as memorable highlights, but the album in its totality is not quite strong enough to rate higher than this.

Download: Foreign Object, Heel Turn 2, Choked Out, The Legend of Chavo Guerrero
For The Fans Of: Andrew Jackson Jihad, The Weakerthans, The Decemberists, Neutral Milk Hotel, Conor Oberst

Release date 13.04.2015
Merge Records

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