Given how far he's gotten with hi-fi, full band arrangements since releasing Tallahassee in 2002, it's curious that John Darnielle would pause to re-release his rare second and third albums, The Hound Chronicles and Hot Garden Stomp, as a double CD set. He's always been too prolific to consider his past. Plus, he once told me that, thanks to the Internet, the idea of re-releasing rarities didn't matter much. Yet, here we are in 2012, and diehard Mountain Goats fans can finally purchase some of Darnielle's (formerly) cassette-only early work without resorting to exorbitant eBay prices.
As prolific has he's been in the last decade, one could argue Darnielle was even more so pre-Tallahassee. He recorded his albums without a studio, instead relying on a series of boom boxes. You want lo-fi? Howsabout songs so murky you can only hear guitars and whirring cassettes? TMG pre-Tallahassee has many similarities to post-, as Darnielle was and is one of the finest lyricists in indie/folk. But given his low tech roots, it's hard to discern what constitutes "albums" versus "demos."
For me, I've always drawn the line with 1994's Zopilote Machine, the first TMG release to gain wider exposure and the oldest full-length in print, at least until now. That's when Darnielle really came into his own as a songwriter and performer. Non-album tracks from before and during this period, collected on three compilations released in 2002, further confirm that Darnielle was growing at a rapid clip.
Up until now, I've always understood why Hound Chronicles and Hot Garden Stomp were out of print. They're not terrible, and they bear all the hallmarks of the great, still available TMG albums. The songs consist mostly of Darnielle and his acoustic guitar, although he throws in the occasional keyboard track, like on the goofy/awesome "The Cow Song," and samples, such as on "The Garden Song." By "sample," I mean "taped from a TV set," because we're talking the lowest of low tech here.
Darnielle clearly had found his "sound" by this point, but he was still growing as a lyricist, and nothing here hits with the same lyrical punch as, say, "Going to Georgia" or "The Mess Inside." It is because of this that I consider these albums to really be demo collections. I suspect Darnielle would agree that these were not his best works, per the liner notes: "No-one anticipated their coming into the world, and very few noticed or cared. Among those who did, reaction was fairly evenly split. Some people those these tapes were kind of cool. Other people thought they sucked. One can make, without much effort, a good case for either side of the proposition."
But for the Mountain Goats loyalist, this double disc collection packs a lot of history. Here are some of Darnielle's earliest recordings with ex-member Rachel Ware. Here are some early entries in the "Going to…" series. Here are more songs about life in Chino, Calif. As a big, big fan, I'm stoked to finally have a physical copy. As a guy trying to downsize his music collection, and who wasn't really interested in buying these albums until a few weeks ago, however, I feel quite differently.
Maybe Darnielle just wanted to do Shrimper a solid, or combat the insane collector's market, but this collection doesn't really seem to have much of an audience. People just getting into the Goats should not start here. But if you're the kind of obsessive who needs to hear Darnielle's every note, well, then you're probably like me, and thus you probably already downloaded and deleted these albums years ago.