The one thing that's always driven me nuts about Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band has been this feeling that they're a unionized group in which every member must be employed at all times. Should Clarence not be tending to a saxophone solo, hand the man a tambourine. And when is it necessary to have four guitar players strumming the same chords? Seasoned musicians always maintain that the notes you don't play are as important as the ones you do. So it should stand to reason that when a new song is presented to a band that tough choices are in order. What will serve the song best? Should someone sit this one out? Should someone else be brought in?
Folks like Lambchop's Kurt Wagner and Mountain Goats' John Darnielle have never established an official lineup for their "bands." Instead, they operate their organizations as "collectives" where they pick and choose their accompanists as they hear fit. Saves a bundle on health insurance, I'm sure. And it means that each album has its own character. Sure, Wagner and Darnielle will be at center stage guiding things along, but their mileage will vary.
Their two latest releases are noticeably dark, much aligned with a general mellowing heard more frequently in the indie-rock world these days. Own a cello, kid? You're hired. This quietude means you shouldn't try listening to these albums until long after sunset, when their auras will be sufficiently supported. You won't be popping these two discs onto the stereo at a party, unless you're attempting to clear the room. You'll put them on late in the evening, as you contemplate your reasons for living. Neither album will rescue you from the existential divide. Neither offers anything remotely upbeat. They deal in glorious monotony. And while neither approaches the transcendent poetry of Leonard Cohen's best monochromatisms, there are still moments that chill.
As on their last few releases (Is a Woman, Aw C'mon/No, You C'mon), Lambchop has called off the festive horn section, using them instead as background brass ("The Rise and Fall of the Letter P"), and has decided to stake a claim as America's Tindersticks. Wagner could be New England folkie Bill Morrissey singing slow and deadpan while the band toys with atmospherics reminiscent of Bruce Kaphan-era American Music Club and the filmic psychodrama of Lee Hazlewood. Pianos form funereal chords from the church of Nick Cave, while the hints of their Nashville homeplace only surface in slow burbles of pedal steel and tossed-off electric guitar leads. "A Day Without Glasses" keeps a vaguely '70s funk vibe under wraps as it sweeps the dusty plains. Wagner just dribbles words, rambling like a homeless guy talking back to the night.
Mountain Goat John Darnielle aims for more. Or at least he's more interested in you hearing his words. He presents himself as a singer-songwriter with a short story to tell. His characters often appear to be hapless victims of habit and whim, with Darnielle playing the role of neutral observer. Get Lonely features some of his most conscious singing, reaching for falsetto and settling for restrained joy. Erik Friedlander's cello figures prominently, and Corey Fogel's adventurous drum patterns (for a Mountain Goats album, remember) give the album a nervous energy rumbling underneath the placid surface. While the chord patterns of "Maybe Sprout Wings" and "Moon Over Goldsboro" imply ominous proceedings, Darnielle sounds nearly medicated in his dry delivery throughout the entire album. There's no moment of catharsis here. No chorus to sing triumphantly. Just life proceeding at its own natural pace with Darnielle capturing it in real firstname.lastname@example.org