John Darnielle is the Mountain Goats in the same sense that Dwayne Johnson is the Rock. But whereas the WWE star has lately de-emphasized wrestling and action-hero posturing in favor of embarrassing stabs at "comedy," Darnielle has given up his impassioned yet impersonal lo-fi habits for greater sonic clarity and fearless lyrical wrestling with his personal demons. This week he's in town previewing songs from the upcoming smart (and smarting) Mountain Goats adolescent-memory disc The Sunset Tree, his ninth full-length since 1995. Quick informal poll: Has anyone out there ever: a) washed down St. Joseph's Baby Aspirin with Bartles & Jaymes; b) escaped (or caused) scenes of explosive domestic violence by means of stereo equipment; c) felt a lycanthropian kinship to Romulus and Remus; or d) speculated on the precise amount of white powder it took to kill reggae legend Dennis Brown? If any of this stuff hits home, do yourself a favor and head to Mary Jane's posthaste, because Darnielle's singing your songs. The rest of us should show up as well, if only for the schadenfreude of watching one of the most galvanizing singer-songwriters alive singed in the juices of his own deceptively jaunty melodies. Mmmmm, cabrito.
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Though rock crystal sculptures of the human head have been around since the Mesozoic eras, more recently some New Agers say these talismans purportedly are imbued with magical powers. Not so the Seattle-based indie band Crystal Skulls. On Blocked Numbers, their full-length debut, the only thing they channel is the spirit of lost '70s power poppers like the Motors and the Nerves, with a dash of Spoon. Front man/songwriter Christian Wargo aims for the sensitive worldview and airy feel of the Shins, but doesn't exactly deliver their atmospheric power with his flat warbling and melodies that are sometimes distinguished by their indistinguishability. So uniform is the sound that the CD booklet doesn't even bother to point out what instruments band members Casey Foubert, Yuuki Matthews and Ryan Phillips play. Still, tracks like "Airport Motels," "Every Little Bit" and "Weak Spot" are frothy enough for followers of the genre, many of whom probably write bad poetry and watch The O.C.