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Beat the Champ

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Album Review

In this life, you take your iconic experiences where you find them; some people have their world-view turned upside down by Gabriel García Marquez, Steve Reich, or Akira Kurosawa, while others find their epiphanies through Tom Clancy, Rush, or Star Trek, and who's to say they're any less valid? John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats was a passionate fan of professional wrestling when he was a kid in the '70s, before the game reinvented itself into a glossy entertainment experience akin to a hair metal concert. Darnielle was attracted to the action and the story lines in which heroes battled heels in rundown auditoriums and on syndicated TV week after week, but as importantly, it was also one of the few things that allowed him to bond with his stepfather, one small place where their obsessions crossed paths. For Darnielle, wrestling was clearly more than just noisy fun, but a sort of folk theater that spoke of good and evil, and how decent men must sometimes mimic their nemeses to serve the greater good. All of which is why the Mountain Goats have written and recorded an album about pro wrestling; Beat the Champ features 13 songs that deal in various ways with the nuts and bolts of pro grappling, the larger-than-life characters that fought in the ring each week, and the men who made careers out of bringing those characters to life. If you expect Beat the Champ to be an experience in kitsch, you couldn't be more wrong; here Darnielle writes about his youthful fascinations with the understanding and literacy of a grown man, and while he's clearly aware of the theatrical absurdity of the not-quite-a-sport in tunes like "Foreign Object" and "Fire Editorial," that doesn't mean he doesn't respect their place as theatrical devices, and the snapshots of lives in and out of the ring in "The Ballad of Bull Ramos," "Southwestern Territory," and "Werewolf Gimmick" are rendered with a keen understanding of the human experience. Darnielle doesn't quite have the ideal voice to inhabit the tough guys he often sings about, but he understands the grand drama and the small details of these tales well enough to make his characters seem real and multi-dimensional, and he allows the songs to sound gentle when they deal with hard lives. And the accompaniment from his bandmates Peter Hughes (bass) and Jon Wurster (drums) is superb, following the paths of Darnielle's voice, guitar, and keyboards with intuitive grace. You don't have to care about wrestling to be knocked out by Beat the Champ, but Darnielle makes it clear that these stories mean something real to him, and this is a fascinating portrait not of who wins or loses, but those who play the game.


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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