If you read this blog regularly, you know that 1) I dabble in songwriting or recording covers of songs I like, mostly on ukulele, and 2) I’m pretty obsessed with the Mountain Goats. So, naturally, it made perfect sense to cover all of one of my favorite Mountain Goats albums, Tallahassee, on ukulele. It’s streaming on my Soundcloud, where you can download it, or you can also download it as a .ZIP from MediaFire, which might be easier.
Tallahassee is a concept album about two people in a dysfunctional, mutually destructive marriage who begin drinking themselves to death. It’s super cheery funtimes. So why would I decide to cover all this? Well, if you’ve listened to any of my original songs, you know that depressing music is kind of my thing. Songwriting was initially – and primarily still is – a form of therapy for me. I haven’t gotten around to much songwriting lately (an imminent new year’s resolution, I guess), so this was also practice. I’ve made a lot of progress in terms of actually being able to sing over the past two years, and I didn’t want to lose that, and Tallahassee is a good fit for my limited musical talents.
But seriously, why Tallahassee specifically? I have two reasons, I guess. For a more Mountain Goats-related reason, it’s notably the first entirely studio-recorded Mountain Goats album. Every album before that point was mostly recorded on a boombox with just John Darnielle and an acoustic guitar, with a handful of duets with a bassist and other odds and ends. But this was the first album with studio production. Given that my musical style is lo-fi recordings of me and a single instrument, I rather liked the idea of creating an inversion of Tallahassee‘s technical status.
Second, it is obvious an album of significant personal importance for me. I first listened to Tallahassee in the wake of my first breakup, after the angry and nasty period and in the “pretending we can be polite around each other” period. As I’ve written before (also while musing about the Mountain Goats), it had become a very dysfunctional relationship and there were a lot of complicated residual emotions, so hearing someone else’s musings on love and hate in a mutually destructive relationship was illuminating. The analogue wasn’t perfect, of course (it was a college relationship as opposed to a marriage, although I think an argument could be made for absurd amounts of alcohol to help us tolerate each other), but it resonated. I actually have another cover of “No Children” from around that time; the song’s speaker’s chorus of “I hope you die/I hope we both die” and its defeated helplessness was super cathartic, which probably still bleeds over into my cover of the song now. It wasn’t just a breakup album for me, though. I had this song on repeat for a very long time afterwards, and as a result it also stuck around with me for many happier moments during the period of time where I was redefining myself as a person I actually liked. I have a very pleasant memory of listening to the album when everyone else was asleep, lying on the floor of my friends’ grandparents’ beach house I had gotten a last minute invite to. There’s nothing special about it. It was just a very pleasant moment during a period where I felt happier with myself than I had for a very long time previously.
So hopefully you enjoy it. I know I say this every time I upload new music, but I honestly think this is some of the best singing I’ve done. And, plus, it’s all written super well because someone else wrote it, so, hey, I hope you like it. I’d probably want to do another album of original songs next, but covering an entire album on ukulele was a pretty fun project and I might like to do it again sometime. I might really like to do Weezer’s Pinkerton, although a full ukulele version of Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality has a certain awful charm to it.
Notes on individual tracks:
- Tallahassee – I tried to do both the looping bassline and the strumming at the same time. On a ukulele. I also started listening to The National around this time and realized, “Hey, I have a deep voice… maybe I should try singing sort of like that guy.” So, yeah, this one took a long time to all put together. As for Darnielle’s lyrics, I love that first “And you” at the end of the first verse, especially because of how the “you” gets turned into a question when it’s repeated at the end of the song after “What did I come down here for?”
- First Few Desperate Hours – Generally the faster a song’s tempo and the higher pitched the vocals, the harder time I have covering it. This took forever. I have a tendency to misremember the lyrics as “On the back of a truck/I still don’t give a fuck”. Which is wrong.
- Southwood Plantation Road - I have a faster, more sneering alternate take of this song. I honestly couldn’t decide which I liked more – the sneering did wonders to my favorite lines of the song, “Like a Louisiana graveyard/On Southwood Plantation Road/Where the dead will walk again/Put on your Sunday best/And go with unsuspecting Christian men” – but ultimately this slower, smoother version worked better for the flow of the album as a whole.
- Game Shows Touch Our Lives – “People say friends don’t destroy one another/What do they know about friends?” Word.
- The House That Dripped Blood - I’m not entirely convinced I did this song justice, but I wanted to try to find some sort of “just acoustic and vocals” equivalent of the Mountain Goats’ version’s airy, echoey vocals.
- Idylls of the King – This is one of my favorite songs of the bunch to play on ukulele. John Darnielle has a tendency to use a lot of the same chords, but this one was both a combination of fun chords you don’t get to play all that often (Bm7 haha hello, sailor!) and a fun little pulloff. Love that “the shrieking of innumerable gibbons” line. What a great combination of words.
- No Children – God damn, I love this song. I’m so glad I decided to rerecord it and not just reuse my previous take from two years ago. It’s such a beautiful combination of anger and indifference. That “I hope you die/I hope we both die” is so good… it’s such an economically powerful way of conveying the narrator’s hatred of his partner and the affect it’s had on him. He doesn’t just hate her, but his hatred of her makes him hate himself. Her going away won’t solve the problem. Everything has to be gone. Another great line that doesn’t get a whole lot of love living in the shadow of that chorus, “And I hope when you think of me years down the line/You can’t find one good thing to say”, does the same sort of thing, but projects it instead. He hopes she hates him as much as he hates her – anything less would be too good. He has no remaining happiness of her, why should she get any? It’s a song about being trapped in a loveless marriage, but I maintain it has value as a breakup song too.
- See America Right – I tried playing the ukulele more like the bassline than the guitar part of this song, because that driving bassline is what makes this song. “My love is like a dark cloud full of rain/It’s always right there up above you” – that line always makes me think of Charlie Brown for some reason.
- Peacocks – I’m still not sure what this song is about.
- International Small Arms Traffic Blues – Fun Technical Fact: All the songs on the album were played with a Lanikai LU-21 soprano ukulele except for this one, which was played with an Epiphone Les Paul Electric-Acousic concert ukulele, because I ran out of notes on the smaller one. Favorite Darnielle lyric: “There is a shortage in the blood supply/But there is no shortage of blood”
- Have to Explode – I actually don’t have anything to say about this one, really.
- Old College Try - I notice Darnielle works with eye imagery a lot, which is fine, except I noticed my Chicago accent means a lot of my “eyes” sound like “ass”, which sort of change the meaning of lines like “In the way those eyes I’ve always loved illuminate this place”. Also, speaking of imagery, let’s talk about how the next two lines are “Like a trash can fire in a prison cell” and “Like the searchlights in the parking lots of Hell”, because those are awesome.
- Oceanographer’s Choice – I was really worried about covering this one, since it’s definitely the rockiest of the bunch, but I actually really like the end result. I was a little hazy on what this song was about – the diction is so violent, so it would stand to reason that this is where the abuse moves from emotional to physical, but I just recently saw an amazing, comprehensive list of the appropriate Mountain Goats songs for any kind of relationship, and this song’s entry was “If you’re in a mutually destructive relationship and it’s making you horny,” and, yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Real talk, the “What will I do when I don’t have you/To hold onto in the dark?” line haunts me every time.
- Alpha Rat’s Nest – I didn’t “get” this song at first because it sounded like a too happy close for the album, but the more I studied it, the more it’s actually the perfect album closer. It’s musically cheery, but lyrically defeated. There’s no end for the two people in this relationship (not on this album, anyway; “Alpha Omega” from the rarities compilation Protein Source of the Future…Now! is supposed to be the final chronological song about the Alpha couple); they’re just stuck, and that’s what we have here. They’re trapped with each other, resigned to the facade, and their problems will never end. “The night is lovely as a rose/If I see sunlight hit you I am sure that we’ll both decompose”. It’s a fascinating study of a relationship where love and hatred are equal forces – supposed to be contradictory, but working here more like opposite ends of magnets. To try to capture that vital contradiction of this song, I smiled as I sang it. “Some day we’ll both wake up for good/I will try hard not to scream”.