The Mountain Goats – Beat The Champ
There are times for us all, I’m sure, when music manages to flick a switch in our minds and sends us back to another time and place. It can come as something of a surprise when it isn’t particularly anticipated.
With The Mountain Goats’ latest release Beat The Champ, opening track ‘Southwest Territory’ set my synapses off in ways I simply wasn’t prepared for. Firstly, it serves as a reminder of the band’s excellent past release The Life Of The World To Come, as well as being filled with gorgeous slacker rock vibes. As a frame of reference, there’s a kind of Death Cab For Cutie feel blended in with some Hefner and Wilco.
Just as with The Life Of… there’s a strong concept running through this record that references old school semi pro wrestling, and in some ways it’s the concept alone that gives the album its backbone, as we are led through a variety of styles and sounds throughout the album’s progression. The latin tinged brass on ‘Foreign Object’ creates a hilarity that contrasts hugely against the opening track, and serves as an indicator that it would be foolish to get too settled with the album. Rather, Beat The Champ is an opportunity to be taken on a wild flight of fancy, through the warm americana of ‘Animal Mask’ and relentless macho barrage of ‘Choked Out’.
It’s a rare pleasure these days to come across a record that really has the artistry to take the listener on a true journey. With the iTunes generation, we’ve got far too used to selecting singles, constructing playlists, skipping tracks along the way. Beat The Champ defies that approach, and invites the listener to get stuck in while the story unfolds, even providing the opportunity to get lost in the piano coda on ‘Heel Turn 2’, a mysterious and enigmatic instrumental section that is as curious as it is dreamy.
As albums go, BTC has everything it needs to sear itself on your music memory banks – the spoken word of ‘Stabbed To Death Outside San Juan’ creates a sense of beat poetry that isn’t a million miles from sounding like a Richard Brautigan work set to music. There are moments where the bass line threatens to duplicate that classic part from Fleetwood Mac’s ‘The Chain’, but only teases – never goes the whole way and pulls things back and under control with its own direction.
As far as things go when albums have a solid concept, Beat The Champ takes the listener on a clear path, and John Darnielle’s expert leadership makes sure that the songs are sharply constructed. Vocally, he’s doing better than ever – sensitive and emotional on tracks like ‘Luna’, yet assertive and abrasive on others like ‘The Ballad of Bull Ramos’.
Fundamentally, this isn’t going to tick your boxes if lo-fi slacker indie rock makes you twitchy. On the other hand, this just might be the perfect entry point for anyone wanting to expand their musical horizons and try something with a little more intention and artisty going on behind it. While Beat The Champ isn’t a record filled with crowd pleasers, it most definitely is a well rounded album that successfully achieves what it sets out to do.