The Mountain Goats - Beat The Champ - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

The Mountain Goats - Beat The Champ

by Rob Taylor Rating:9.5 Release Date:2015-04-07

Professional wrestlers appear as caricatures to spectators. The titanic, larger-than-life figures seem to inhabit the burlesque as if it defines their living personality. The fact they were mere creations removed any trace of who they were as individuals. Beat the Champ is exactly about unearthing these characters as real people, not as an act of revisionism, because Darnielle clearly revelled in the sport, but as a metaphor for the public versus the private person.    

There are many great songwriters who capture the essence of the underdog, that quintessential attribute that defines Middle America and its aspirations, successes and failures, its striving for something materially, or just positively better. Like Townes Van Zandt’s ironic ‘Ballad of Ira Hayes’, "the whiskey drinking indian/ the marine who went to war", like Rodriguez’s stories of downtrodden inner-city despair, Howe Gelb and Joey Burns’s farcical accounts of cross-border legend, Lee Hazlewood’s accounts of growing up in smalltown America, Jason Lytle’s musings on urban decay; like all of these examples and more, John Darnielle perceptively re-imagines an unglamorous subtext, in this case of a violent sport, its protagonists, and its eyewitnesses.

Musically, Beat the Champ is a wonderfully varied song-cycle, from the opener ‘Southwestern Territory’, a gentle piano-piece with a delicate woodwind backing, which might easily have been sung by Tom Waits on ‘Alice’. The woodwinds buzz around the keyboard, then freelance in a sound reminiscent of an orchestra warming up pre-concert. ‘The Legend of a Chavo Guerrero’, an upbeat number typical of the Mountain Goat sound, with a catchy chorus, about a man who once paraphrased Theodore Roosevelt's “Speak softly but carry a heavy stick”, when describing his wrestling strategy against a hated opponent. 

‘Foreign Object’ is another great indie-pop song employing recurrent low-pitched horns, over Darnielle’s acerbic lyrics about the dubious and illegal tactic of using foreign objects in an attempt to gain an upper-hand. Evidently, ‘The Sheik’ used mini explosions of fire, for instance, to startle his opponent.

‘Animal Mask’ assembles alt-country sounds: steel guitar and lithe drumming, a benchmark sound for the band Giant Sand, but with the addition of some southern-fried electronic keyboard. ‘Choked Out’ is an addictive and frenetic rocker with manic drumming and crunching guitar-work.

In a varied programme, the tinkling piano and light caressing of the cymbals give the track ‘Fire Editorial’ a jazzy feeling, followed by a clear folk-rock narration on ‘Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan’, the story of the real-life murder of Bruiser Brody. Elsewhere, we get the pounding-metal drumming of ‘Werewolf Gimmick’, the light tap-shuffle, poignant strings and harmonising on ‘Luna’, the cross-bred country-indie of ‘The Ballad of Bull Ramos’, and the wistful ‘Hair Match’.

This is a marvellous suite of songs bearing repeated listening. I’m normally not given to hyperbole, but Beat the Champ is more than cultural curio piece. It’s a highpoint of achievement for Darnielle and The Mountain Goats in both song and story-telling tradition.The best thing they’ve done in years.

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