Music All ears 

Sometimes angry, often sad young men

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Next Tuesday sees the release of a masterful new record - one that, if there's any justice in the music world (uh, right) should bring to the mainstream an artist who until now has enjoyed a well-deserved cult following.

The Mountain Goats is a confusing name for a band that's basically one man - an anxious, overeducated and very sensitive Californian named John Darnielle - plus any stray musicians he draws to him at that moment. For much of his career, Darnielle's recordings were made mostly on a jambox, often featuring just his reedy voice, an aggressively strummed guitar, and a lot of tape hiss.

Darnielle has stepped up his recording game lately, and The Sunset Tree (4AD) is almost a lush outing: It has piano and brushed drums, it has bass, it occasionally even has strings. More importantly, it boasts the most cohesive collection of songs he's assembled yet - a baker's dozen autobiographical stories about growing up with an adventurous soul and a violent stepfather. (Though Darnielle's songs often feel very personal, these are the first he's written about his own childhood.)

Many of these snapshots are wrenching. Menace hovers over the paternal sofa, drug habits portend a romantic early death, and the singer is prone to wondering if he'll make it through the night. But taken together, they don't add up to a pessimistic record. Though it isn't typical, "Dance Music" gets at the spirit of things, picturing a kid hiding out in his bedroom, ears pressed to a stereo on low volume, fleeing from the wrath downstairs into a world of "dance music ... dance myuzik." This kid, as we already know, finds his way out eventually.

Austin's Okkervil River just released a record that's as unified as The Sunset Tree, though the overall picture is more a novel than a memoir: Black Sheep Boy (Jagjaguwar) may take its title song from Tim Hardin, but it builds its own world around that tune. Where earlier Okkervil spun a lot of backwoods beauty out of mandolins and Wurlitzers, BSB is most alive when it's closer to rock 'n' roll: The title song leads into "For Real," which pounces on listeners with a thrash matching the lyrics "some nights I thirst for real blood, for real knives, for real cries." If this Boy is a black sheep, you realize, it's not because he can't pass algebra.

Singer/songwriter Will Sheff
does some of his best work
with narrators who love
damaged women.

Singer/songwriter Will Sheff does some of his best work with narrators who love damaged women: In "Black," the singer urges the singee to "wreck his life the way that he wrecked yours," before threatening to "tear his throat, spill his blood between my jaws..."; elsewhere he laments that the girl he wants loves "A Stone." Okkervil's live shows have always been rowdier than their finely crafted records, but this disc invites more of that energy back into the studio. Listeners curious to see them first-hand can catch the band at Austin's Parish on April 29.

Sheff's blend of literary imagination and bloodlust might bring to mind Nick Cave, even if the latter has often given the impression that he might actually be capable of the violence his songs depict. Cave devotees will weep their eyeliner away at the release of a little black box helpfully titled Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds: B-Sides & Rarities (Mute), in which three CDs compile everything from soundtrack and tribute-album contributions to stuff like the flexidisc of "Scum" that the band sold at concerts during the '80s.

Of course it's a mixed bag, but there's more than enough treasure here to justify the purchase. You say you never bought the single where Cave and the Pogues' Shane McGowan fall all over each other covering the Louis Armstrong hit "What a Wonderful World"? Here you go. While you're at it, check out the covers of Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, and (wow!) Roy Orbison. Dig the stripped down "Mercy Seat" and the glossed-up "Red Right Hand"; giggle at the self-indulgent, barely listenable "That's What Jazz is to Me." And rest easy in the knowledge that, as fun as all this is, with a double album out just last year it's not a sign that Nick Cave has stopped writing good new songs. Now that would be something worth getting upset over.

By John DeFore


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