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Zopilote Machine

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Album Review

Following a spate of cassette-only releases, singles, EPs, and compilation tracks stretching back over four years, 1995's Zopilote Machine is the Mountain Goats' full-length debut. Any sense that John Darnielle would upgrade his purist lo-fi aesthetic for the CD age is dashed by the opening track; making Guided by Voices seem like Pink Floyd in comparison, Zopilote Machine was, like most early Mountain Goats releases, primarily recorded on a cheap cassette boombox. However, that opening track, "Alpha Incipiens," is in retrospect clear evidence of Darnielle's artistic ambition; though he didn't explain it as such at the time, "Alpha Incipiens" and its companion tracks, "Alpha Sun Hat" and "Alpha in Tauris," were the beginning of a song cycle that would stretch through the next seven years, culminating in 2002's bleak concept album Tallahassee. "Alpha Sun Hat" is a particular standout, with winsome lines like "I'd like to give in to your oboe reed voice" giving little hint of the depressing turn this story of a dysfunctional alcoholic couple would take. Zopilote Machine also contains three entries in Darnielle's "Going To..." series of songs about physical and psychic displacement, as well as three songs referencing his ongoing fascination with Aztec mythology, including the haunting "Quetzalcoatl Eats Plums," which sounds like a lo-fi indie take on Tea for the Tillerman-era Cat Stevens. Though many of the Mountain Goats' early cassette releases had featured a bassist alongside Darnielle, his vocals and guitar are the only elements on Zopilote Machine; due to the primitive direct-to-cassette-through-condenser-mike recording technique, the album has a unique sound, with Darnielle's urgent, rhythmic acoustic guitar given primacy over his vocals, which sound compressed, hissy, and thin in comparison. New listeners, even if they're familiar with more conventional-sounding later Mountain Goats albums like The Sunset Tree and Get Lonely, will have a learning curve with Zopilote Machine (or indeed any Mountain Goats release from the mid-'90s), but after the mental recalibration that makes this stark performance style seem less alien, the unpretentious poetry and deadpan humor of Darnielle's lyrics and the folkie delicacy of his melodies blossom.


Formed: 1991 in Claremont, CA

Genre: Alternative

Years Active: '90s, '00s, '10s

The Mountain Goats are, for all practical purposes, the endlessly clever and prolific John Darnielle and whatever musicians he surrounds himself with, which means that while the soundscape may change from project to project, the overall tone and feel of Darnielle's work remains remarkably consistent. At his best, he writes finely observed, slightly surreal, impressionistic vignettes that manage to mix life as we live it with life as we wish we could live it, and as such he has more in common with...
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