Release Date: Jul 23, 2013
Record label: Merge
Genre(s): Alternative Pop/Rock, Alternative Singer/Songwriter
It’s a sticky Saturday morning and, like a kid watching cartoons, I’ve been awake since before 7am. Unlike a kid, I’ve got my second cup of coffee in my hand (with three ice cubes in – very important), and I’m trying to figure out what there is left to say about The Mountain Goats’ All Hail West Texas. Well, for starters, the remastering here is negligible – its rough edges and harsh sonics were always part of its charm.
All Hail West Texas is a lonely album, a product of idle time and summer boredom recorded alone, quickly, in an empty house. John Darnielle wrote most of the lyrics in the margins of the stapled, mimeographed handouts given to him in the orientation sessions at his new health-care job in Ames, Iowa. It was 1999. Every day he’d come home at three to an empty house, dishes crowding the sink (his wife was away at hockey camp) and pass the solitary evenings leafing through his handouts and editing the day’s work.
It’s fitting that on the heels of the announcement of Cassette Store Day we see the release of a remastered version of All Hail West Texas, an album that utilized cassette home recording for the final time (so far) in John Darnielle’s career as The Mountain Goats. Of course, by the time the album came out in 2002, cassette listening had already had already joined CompuServe as a rapidly fading memory, and we were happy to replace tapes with CDs, which allowed skipping to specific songs with ease, didn’t need to be flipped for listening to the second half of a collection and were thin enough to inspire a wealth of creative space-saving storage options. Of course, Millennials might not know this, but tapes were kind of fun, too.
John Darnielle’s original liner notes to 2002’s All Hail West Texas—the last of the lo-fi, boombox-recorded Mountain Goats albums – might say more interesting things about it than almost every reviewer of it probably did or will (including me). He spelled out that the album was in tribute to home-recording misfits. He described the static hums and whirs that are in the background of the album, noise created by the failing recording devices, as another character in the songs, almost like the uncaring divine being that is or isn’t looking on at their lives, at “the boneheaded ideas that motivate the people who populate these little songs”, as he describes them.
A byword for turn-of-the-century lo-fi, All Hail West Texas holds legendary status among the dedicated fanbase of John Darnielle, aka The Mountain Goats. Recorded onto cassette using a Panasonic boombox and without any overdubs, the LP retains a raw, DIY edge even in its remastered form. Darnielle’s deft lyrical touch is particularly evident in classic opener The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton, a tale of broken dreams and escape plots.
Just off Texas State Highway 21, a route followed by migrating buffalo centuries ago, sits the town of Dime Box. When author William Least Heat-Moon visited during a cross-country expedition–later chronicled in his landmark travel-writing tome Blue Highways–Dime Box was a town where the cafes had screen doors and the sidewalks were constructed of wood planks. Small children gathered in the barber shop to stare at a large mounted bass outfitted with steer horns.