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John Darnielle, the grimly funny acoustic balladeer who performs as the Mountain Goats, started out making cassette tapes in his bedroom, and he tends like a Stradivarius the 1989 Panasonic RX-FT500 boom box he used to record his latest CD, All Hail West Texas (Emperor Jones). Darnielle swears by its harsh, clattery sound, which seems to accent his primal guitar thrashing and nasal talking blues: “It sounds better than a studio,” he enthuses on his Web site. “It always records a voice louder than a guitar.” (The diaphragm on the box’s condenser microphone fails to close for any but the loudest signals, so it even captures the grinding of the gears as the cassette tape rolls.) The new album is a song cycle, subtitled “Fourteen Songs About Seven People, Two Houses, a Motorcycle, and a Locked Treatment Facility for Adolescent Boys.” The opening waltz, “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton,” concerns Jeff and Cyrus, teenage pals who practice twice a week in Jeff’s bedroom till Cyrus gets shipped off to said facility. In “The Fall of the Star High School Running Back” a local football hero suffers a knee injury that ends his career, winds up dealing drugs, and under a new sentencing law gets a federal prison term. “You were the first one, so I sing this song for you,” Darnielle declares. “William Stanaforth Donahue / Your grandfather rode the boat over from Ireland / But you made a bad decision or two.” The humor wanes as Darnielle considers the desiccated marriages of other characters, though when the occasion arises he can be as tender as he is scathing: in the gentle “Jeff Davis County Blues” the singer “walks real steady and my eyes are real cold / But I feel like I’m only 16 years old / Lost in a Travelodge with the television on and the sound down / I don’t feel so tough.” Coming in waves of violent emotion and ice-cold clarity, Darnielle’s songs demand to be confronted as well as heard. Friday, March 8, 10 PM, Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western; 773-276-3600.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Patrick Rapa.