Released: February 22, 2011
The Gallery is a band on the rise. Having built grassroots bases in their New England home and later in Florida, they embarked on a national tour in 2009 and have been more recently performing with bands such as The Maine and We the Kings. After a few spins of their EP Come Alive, you’ll see that this brewing rise is well-deserved and you may just be inclined to hop on the bandwagon before there even is a bandwagon.
Just a few seconds into opener “Catalyst”, listeners will likely catch one reason for the band’s increasing popularity: it’s not difficult when your biggest musical influences are already well-established within mainstream and indie circles. In a nutshell, they’re Bruce Springsteen without the synths and saxes, The Hold Steadywith fewer keys and less of a bar-rock sound.
Getting through the rest of the song, listeners will see another reason: “Catalyst” is really good, perhaps even too good. Catchy hooks are a dime a dozen these days, but songs that combine these hooks with such simple, earnest lyrics are harder to come by. It’s true that there are no deep insights, but lines like “This is a walk away / from those dirty little games you played. / I heard your sorrys, but I saw no change. / I gave you love, you gave me pain,” when backed by such honest music and Brendan Cooney’s hometown vocals packs a solid punch. It almost makes the rest of the EP struggle slightly to keep up in comparison, but it gives a valiant effort.
“Ballroom of Broken Hearts” slows down the tempo, but maintains the EP’s pace. Vocally and lyrically, it leans more heavily on The Boss than any other track, telling the tale of a girl “unlucky in lust.” It showcases their mature musicianship by effectively stripping down the first chorus, but doesn’t rely on it for the other choruses, instead adopting a fuller sound becoming less wistful, adapting to the entire song’s structural buildup. It’s less likely to be heard on the radio than “Catalyst”, but it is nonetheless good enough to prove that “Catalyst” wasn’t a fluke.
Tackling a different lyrical theme is “Who’s in the Right”. On one level about a fighting couple, it undeniably speaks to our country’s bigger conflicts as well with the simple observation “We’ll drop bombs all day and night/ to show who’s in the wrong and who’s in the right.” Even though it’s an anti-war song to some extent, it doesn’t fall on the trite clichés that today’s bands loved during the Bush era (i.e. no mention of a “gas war” or “fighting daddy’s battles”). Sincerity abound, it even feels close to The Avett Brothers. Unfortunately, the lyrics are stronger than the music, which relies too much on a bland guitar line.
The lightness of “Last Goodbye” serves as an excellent counter to the heaviness of its preceding track. The drum driven pre-chorus and explosive chorus are certainly engaging, but clocking in at close to five minutes, it runs slightly long.
Rounding out the EP is “Free,” which is actually a bit of a letdown. For once, the music feels too generic and the lyrics are excessively sappy. Though not a terrible song, it’s certainly a disappointment when compared to everything else before it. Not the best end, but it doesn’t detract too much from the quality of the EP on the whole. It’s not the deepest music you’ve ever heard, but it’s a solid effort by a band that you should make a point to know.
Standout Tracks: “Catalyst” and “Ballroom of Broken Hearts”
As any seasoned fan of The Mountain Goats (or “Old Goats” as they are so want to be called) will tell you, the group has always been little more than a creative vehicle for frontman John Darnielle. Diminutive and seemingly painfully suburban, he imbues his nuanced lyrics with such an unrefined emotional rawness that Mountain Goats classics like “No Children” and “Dance Music”– apotheoses on love, loss and dysfunctional relationships – manage to be in equal parts deeply personal and arrestingly touching.
By this measure, All Eternals Deck is a starkly underwhelming album. Lyrically, the album seems strained – Darnielle’s once effortlessly sinuous song writing is mired in a slew of simplistic “night/light” ABCB couplets, an unfortunate album trait exemplified in the utterly forgettable “Prowl Great Cain”. This percussion-driven romp, with its clichéd biblical reference and contrived end rhymes, is an insipidly glib experience that is regrettably mirrored in many of All Eternals Deck‘s tracks. The album is thematically unfocused as well – the record opens with an angry meditation on the meaning of freedom (“Damn These Vampires”), diverts itself briefly into an ode to love lost (“Age of Kings”) and finally arrives at a self-depreciating criticism of big-city life (“Liza Forever Minelli”). The only connecting aspect throughout the album is a pervasive sense of dread – when he’s on form, even on musically upbeat tracks (“High Hawk Season”), Darnielle’s interminably candid vocals saturate the record with malaise and foreboding.
Where the album truly comes into its own is within the function it serves for the rest of the band’s catalogue: All Eternals Deck marks the final stage of the Goats’ progression from Darnielle’s early hushed acoustic work to what is essentially an exercise in vaguely The Hold Steady-esque alt-rock. This is arguably the most obviously produced of the Mountain Goat’s albums, lending inarguably from the involvement of legendary death metal producer Erik Rutan, however the value of his influence on the record is debatable. Darnielle traditionalists will likely resent the unapologetically more accessible direction taken on the album whilst new fans will appreciate its cleanliness. Personal preference notwithstanding, the fact remains that on at least several of the tracks Darnielle’s vocals have had their sincerity buffed out by over-zealous production – gone are the idiosyncratic inflections and intimately delicate intakes of air at the end of lines that shone so clearly in past albums (Read: The Life of the World To Come). The vocal track that remains is often embarrassingly reedy and unimpressive, especially on the tracks in which Darnielle attempts to raise his voice above his typical reserved lilt and into a stirring bellow (“Birth of Serpents”). Significantly, there is an obvious decentralization of Darnielle as the creative driving force of the band – there is a much more diverse instrumental track in the album compared to some of its acoustic guitar-lead predecessors, telling of a more involved contribution from bassist Peter Hughes and drummer Jon Wurster.
All Eternals Deck is by no means a bad album. The lyrics may not be Darnielle’s finest, but at the same time he abstains from counting off the days of the week – he is as always at the head of his contemporaries in this regard. As a typical Mountain Goats record, it takes no excessive risks but is appropriately emotive and sublimely executed. Ultimately, listener enjoyment of this album is largely dependent on their opinion of the band’s back catalogue: an All Hail West Texas purist can be expected to disapprove of the relatively weak writing and intimacy of the record. All Eternals Deck has only promising things to say about the future of The Mountain Goats, and knowing John Darnielle – we won’t have to wait long till we find out just what it entails.
Standout Track: “Never Quite Free” – triumphantly defiant, a fitting emotional climax for the album.
The Minnesota Twins have recently clinched the AL Central Division Championship. For the team’s upcoming playoff run, Craig Finn of The Hold Steady and The Baseball Project (composed of Steve Wynn of Dream Syndicate and R.E.M members Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey) have written a theme song entitled “Don’t Call Them Twinkies” which can be streamed here.