John Darnielle’s indie-folkers get soulful in the Deep South for their twentieth studio album – dark, intimate, cinematic and seriously impressive.
For a bunch of musicians working on their latest album just as COVID-19 took hold, there are worse places to be quarantined than Muscle Shoals, Alabama, in the Deep South. In March 2020, US band The Mountain Goats found themselves holed up in the legendary FAME Studios for the recording of ‘Dark in Here’, which was intended as a more intense, er, darker companion piece to last year’s ‘Getting Into Knives’, which they’d made in Memphis shortly before starting on the follow-up.
‘Dark in Here’ is their fifth album in four years – incredibly, they’ve actually put out 20 studio albums since 1994. Reviewing their last one, in October 2020, AMUK called it: “Kooky and richly textured indie-folk/pop/rock shot through with gallows humour – likeable, sometimes annoying.” The good news is that ‘Dark in Here’ is less kooky and annoying, and more much likeable, than its predecessor – it’s not quite as richly textured, but more intimate and stripped-down.
The room at FAME where the Mountain Goats set up to play is the same one where Percy Sledge sang ‘When A Man Loves A Woman’ and Aretha Franklin recorded ‘I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)’ – the Wurlitzer which acclaimed songwriter and session guy Spooner Oldham played on that last song is still in the room. It’s been sat there since 1967. That sublime Southern soul sound has oozed its way into this album from the nearby river.
In fact, Oldham (Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Linda Ronstadt) actually plays Hammond and electric piano on ‘Dark in Here’ – he gives the ballad, ‘Mobile’, which is one of the highlights, a gorgeous, warm and laidback feel, blending perfectly with local guitarist Will McFarlane’s (Bonnie Raitt) tasteful licks. The two of them are also on the title track – albeit playing in a different style, to suit the sinister, edgy, Spaghetti Western atmospherics of the song: “Steal away at sundown – pick a place to hide. Check for signs of ambush – hunker down inside.” It’s a powerful performance and was apparently nailed in two takes.
There’s really only one true out-and-out rocker on the record, ‘The Destruction of the Kola Superdeep Borehole Tower’, with a galloping rhythm, some seriously chunky organ and frontman John Darnielle doing his best Michael Stipe circa ‘Document’ impression. ‘Lizard Suit’ could almost be The National playing lounge music – which is as good as that sounds – apart from the crazy Mike Garson-style jazz piano freak out at the end, while the nocturnal ambience of ‘When A Powerful Animal Comes’ also has shades of Matt Berninger and co’s outfit, but with added woodwind and soulful female backing vocals. Funnily enough, for last year’s excellent solo album, ‘Serpentine Prison’, Berninger also embraced Southern soul – it was produced by Booker T.Jones.
Don’t be surprised if, like The National, The Mountain Goats manage to crossover from the indie-hipster scene into the more mainstream rock arena sometime soon – on the strength of ‘Dark in Here’, they certainly deserve to.