The Aardvark Speaks : essence, effervescence, obscurity. Established 2002. A weblog by Horst Prillinger. ISSN 1726-5320

May 10, 2005

2 reviews

Van Der Graaf Generator: PresentIt seems that bands who have been around for a while, or bands that reunite after a while, usually take one of two options: they either constantly re-invent themselves, as Wire have done on a number of occasions, or they firmly hold on to their schtick. Depending on how well they do it, both strategies can lead to success or failure.

To the amazement of quite a few people, Van Der Graaf Generator, originally founded in 1967, have recently reunited after something like 30 years and released a new album, Present, and it turns out that they are one of the bands who hold on to their past. With a vengeance. This is both good and bad: musically, it works remarkably well. What we get on this album is pretty much the same crossover between prog rock and jazz that VDGG played in the 1970s, and I'm not sure if they updated it in some way or if it simply fits into our times a s well as it did 30 years ago, but it's fresh, it's powerful, and it's —most importantly— interesting.

Lyrically, it is, however, something of an anachronism. Song titles like "Nutter Alert" and "Abandon Ship!" are very 1970s Van der Graaf, "Architectural Hair" even harks back to things like Amon Düül's "Dehypnotized Toothpaste". And I won't say too much about the lyrics, which are fine in some places, but deeply stuck in 1970s naiveté and/or bombast in others: "Every Bloody Emperor", a thinly disguised attack on U.S. foreign politics would be more successful if it were somewhat more subtle. Thankfully, this weakness is limited to CD1 of the 2-CD package, as CD2 contains a wealth of instrumental jam sessions and improvisations that will delight everyone who's remotely interested in fusion and prog rock crossover.

Putting this aside for a moment, though, VDGG have delivered what none of us would have believed possible: a totally up-to-date 1970s album. Quite remarkable.

Update: The CD sold in Germany and Austria is copy-protected, whereas the CD sold in the UK is not. I therefore strongly advise you to buy it from a UK dealer via mail order.

The Mountain Goats

Friends of mine have been trying to convince me that John Darnielle, the man behind the one-man project The Mountain Goats is a musical genius. Their advantage, perhaps, is that they have been following all of Darnielle's releases, even the very obscure ones that came out on audio tape only and had to be ordered from Darnielle himself. I only know his three most recent albums, the ones on the 4AD label, and so far I have been mostly underwhelmed.

As for Tallahassee, the first 4AD release I agree with Rob Mitchum, who wrote in his review of the album that "Darnielle's apparent phobia for full-band arrangements prevents the music from keeping pace with the storylines" [source], and We Shall Be Healed left me thinking that Darnielle could be doing better. So it is finally with his latest album The Sunset Tree that I am beginning to glimpse first traces of the man's potential genius.

And while I like much of what I'm hearing on this album, I still find plenty of room for improvement. That said, the first half, up to and including track seven, is near perfect. The songs may seem a bit jumbled at first, the musical direction a bit unclear, but it falls into place so nicely on listening to it a second time that you start wondering what you didn't get at first. The songs, particularly "You or your memory", "Broom people", "This year" and "Up the wolves" are little gems, musically and lyrically.

However, the second half does not quite live up to the promise, and I wonder whether it's a problem with the track sequence or simply a lack of musical ideas; I guess both. "Lion's teeth" and "Dilaudid" are simply two versions of the same song with different lyrics, just as "Tetrapod" is an only moderately inspired reworking of "Palmcorder Yajna" from the last album, and towards the end of the album, a couple of slow songs with little musical variation make things drag on. Yes, the last song, "Pale green things", is so beautiful that you will want to weep, but maybe you haven't even made it this far, and if you have, you'll find that it lacks a certain closure quality that a last song of an album should have, so you'll probably feel all hollow when it's over and there's nothing but silence coming from the speakers.

I guess this is an uneven, but generally good album. My advice is to program your CD player so that it skips tracks 8, 9, 11 and 12, and you'll arrive at something that is well worth your time and money, even though it's not the manifestation of musical genius you may have hoped for.

Posted by Horst on May 10, 2005 02:40 PM to reviews | Tell-a-friend

The Cartoonist said on May 10, 2005 07:44 PM:

Unfortunately the London gigs are all sold out. Damn.

Apart from that, Horst - have you heard Githead yet?

dd said on May 10, 2005 08:29 PM:

I think I´ll have to burn some mountain goats for you.
sunset tree: I actually like the second half better.
only goes to show.

laura said on May 11, 2005 07:54 AM:

Have you considered posting these detailed comments on Amazon? I'm sure 5 out of 5 readers would find this review helpful. Maybe I'll try this album--4 or 5 really good tracks is quite an endorsement. The last CD I ordered, Connor Oberst's "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning," was a whiny disappointment.

Horst said on May 11, 2005 09:21 AM:

Ralf: I have ordered the "Headgit" EP and the "Profile" CD from, and they're due to arrive during the next few days. Will divulge the details then, but I liked the videos that you pointed to.

dd: Yes, only goes to show.

laura: If I post them at Amazon, I can't post them here anymore, because by posting them at Amazon, the copyright goes to them.

dieter said on May 11, 2005 10:32 AM:

Horst, you could still post it with a reference that you previously posted it on your blog. Maybe I'm naive but I think it should work that way...

laura said on May 18, 2005 06:42 AM:

I saw two references to Mountain Goats in the last two days! Entertainment Weekly gave the album a "B" grade, and The New Yorker was generally positive.

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