Way back when The Spin was but a group of aspiring scribes and budding musical elitists judging the world safely from inside our local-university bubble, The Mountain Goats’ hiss-heavy, treble-loaded home recordings held a crucial spot on our iPods. Sitting snuggly between Daniel Johnston’s fragile, confessional outsider pop and the wordier, quirkier anti-folk of Jeffrey Lewis, The Goats’ vivid and verbose lyrics were delivered with a lonesome angst that pierced through the cassette noise to make for some of our most beloved college radio jams. Somewhere around 2002’s Tallahassee, singer, songwriter and primary member John Darnielle ditched the boombox and began to record his output with a fully fleshed-out band in proper studios. That’s also around the time The Spin happened to stop paying attention.
We walked into Mercy Lounge Saturday night with all reasonable expectations in that — having ignored 10 years of output and the band’s last eight records — we weren’t planning to hear anything faintly recognizable. Something we also missed was opener Matthew E. White — but by the looks of the room, we doubt he noticed. The band was tearing down their gear before a room that was pushing capacity and waiting about as patiently for The Mountain Goats as you’d expect a gaggle of Mountain Goats fans would.
Something we can say about Matthew E. White is that his band included a horn section, which joined The Mountain Goats onstage for a song or four. Our inherent fear of the unknown was eased ever so slightly when Darnielle’s distinctive nasal yelp brought the memories flooding back. And while he still pummels his acoustic guitar as if he’s backing Black Flag, his rambling and abrasive delivery has eased up into a more affable and melodic folk-rock upgrade.
A wave of foolish guilt crept up once we realized a great many of these tunes were just as good as anything we’d heard back in the day, and the only thing preventing us from singing along was our own fickle taste. This was mid-set, around the time his rhythm section (featuring bassist Peter Hughes and our drumming/comedy hero Jon Wurster, also known for his role in Superchunk and his frequent appearances on Tom Scharpling's excellent Best Show on WFMU) abandoned him, leaving Darnielle to perform a few solo jams. We couldn’t help but hope for an epic old-school anthem like “Going to Georgia” or “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton” to hit us like a ton of nostalgic bricks. Then again, it stands to reason that no one fills a room and gets this kind of crowd response by releasing two decades' worth of lo-fi bedroom recordings. We still have that first decade to hold onto, and honestly, we were a bit more bowled over by the new stuff than we'd anticipated.