Episode 100: A Grand Unified Theory of West Texas

Ryan and Matt celebrate this milestone TFT Podcast with a look at one of their personal favorite albums, The Mountain Goats’ “All Hail West Texas.”

TFT Logo 2013Ryan and Matt celebrate this milestone TFT Podcast with a look at one of their personal favorite albums, The Mountain Goats’ All Hail West Texas.

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11 Comments on “Episode 100: A Grand Unified Theory of West Texas”

  1. Charlie X #

    Damn it you guys. Wrather and Sheely have literally held me down, taken the money out of my wallet and forced me to buy the reissue of All Hail West Texas.
    Okay, none of that is actually true, apart from that I now own the reissue. The TFT podcast introduced me to AHWT back in the Friday Night Lights days and through waffles I managed to hear it. Then I heard it again and again. Then I wrote a novel with the album as the main influence. Hopefully it’ll find an agent some day soon, but even without publication I owe a lot to TFT and its hosts for influencing me so much with their project.
    I lost the previous copy of the album and listening to the podcast today brought back memories of it so vividly I had to purchase the reissue.
    Good work, TFTers, and thank you for picking apart this fantastic album.


    • sheely OTI Staff #

      Holy cow, that is a fantastic story. I’m glad that our discussion of the album back in the Friday Night Lights days prompted you to pick it up (I know that TFT fan Amanda also bought it around then- who knew we were such tastemakers). I’m also glad that the album had such a profound influence on you. Best of luck on finding an agent for the novel- I’m very interested in reading it!

      I’m also glad that we could bully you into donating some cash to John Darnielle (hopefully through an OTI Amazon affiliate link, so that we could catch some of the table scraps).


    • Matthew Wrather OTI Staff #

      Thanks, Charlie. We talk a lot about “making the clackity noise” on the show, and I’m glad our influence generates exponentially more clackity among the podcast’s audience. Being an artist or creator or whatever you want to call it, I think the proper response to works of art involves more works of art.

      Can you send your novel to John Darnielle and tell him it’s about AHWT?


  2. Chris Morgan #

    What a better way to celebrate 100 episodes than by disparaging some dude at AV Club with the classic “retarded person” voice. Plus, as a bonus, I went back to watch that video and he said NOTHING of the sort. The decision isn’t questioned at all.

    So, congrats guys, and go fuck yourself Sheely.


    • sheely OTI Staff #

      Three reactions to your comment, Chris-

      1) In all honesty, I was not going for a “classic retarded person voice”. If I had to articulate my impulse in that moment, I’d say that I was trying to capture the voice I hear in my head when I read the most patronizing Pitchfork reviews and blog comments on Brooklyn Vegan, Stereogum, and many other music blogs. For me, this voice is typified by a tendency to set up (and enforce) restrictive categories, especially around genre and influence. I feel that this tendency in the discourse within the critical establishment has the effect of closing off many potentially productive avenues of discourse and deliberation. While this voice isn’t universal on these sites (and there is a lot of good critical writing and music journalism), it is something I see in a lot of writing and discussion all over the internet (in the music space and beyond), and I think is another manifestation of what Matt described as an impulse to control through minutiae.

      2) I do think you’re right that I overplayed the condescension that is overtly in the AV club video. My bit about there being a simplistic, condescending, and somewhat shortsighted critical narrative around the Mountain Goats was really an amalgam of that AV club video, the supporting text for that video, the Pitchfork review for TMG’s “Tallahassee”, and an interview that Darnielle did with WFPK’s After Dark podcast/show.

      The WFPK show was especially strong on my mind, as I listened to it on my way home to record this TFT episode. In it, the interviewer kept asking questions around the references to death metal in TMG songs, framing the questions as “well, I know your fans don’t really listen to death metal (or vice versa)” and Darnielle repeatedly breaking in and saying “That is completely wrong” and identifying that type of strict genre categorization as largely the creation of the professional music commentariat.

      So, I was definitely a bit unfair to the guy in the AV club video, as I mapped a whole bunch of annoying criticism and journalism on TMG onto him. However, I do think the annoying tendencies that I noticed in the broader coverage of TMG are there in the AV club video. At 0:36 to 0:40 in the video, the interlocutor says “What was your relationship with the song. Do you feel a connection with the lyrics or did you not have a sort of punk phase?” I think that the question does come from a genuine place of respect and reverence for TMG and their music.

      At the same time, I think there are some interesting details in the tone and phrasing that betrays a bit of a condescending attitude towards punk music. All of the action is in the last bit of the quote: “did you not have a sort of punk phase?” The usage of “sort of” and “phase” both serve to diminish punk by framing it as 1) partial and incomplete rather than fully-formed and 2) temporary rather than durable. Although the camera cuts away from the speaker during that phrase, the inflection has traces of a smirk/wink- I can almost hear the scare quotes dripping off of “punk phase”.

      This interpretation is also shaped by the text introducing the video. Although the author correctly says that the cover is awesome, there is an unnecessary (to my mind) amount of framing that the “band-song pairing seems a little incongruous”. I also took issue with the statement that “It just so happens that this song is an indictment of the kind of holier-than-thou punk attitudes that Darnielle probably can’t relate to personally.” Listening to Darnielle’s broad catalogue, I wouldn’t at all be surprised if he had a history as a punk youth. Even if he didn’t have that direct experience, his deep empathy and sensitivity as a songwriter indicates that he has a deep capacity to relate to a wide variety of attitudes and experiences he hasn’t lived through himself.

      So the long and short of it is that I used the tone in that intro paragraph (and the broader critical discourse) to heighten and poke fun at the subtle undercurrent of condescension towards punk music that I noticed in the AV club segment .

      3) All that said, doing something totally off-putting and alienating is in fact a quintessentially TFT way to celebrate 100 episodes. Throughout the entire run of the podcast, the meta-theme has been our constant battle between the earnest and thoughtful parts of ourselves and the darker, more destructive impulses. While we both wanted this episode (and really want every episode) to be a warm and welcoming celebration of the source material , I’m not at all surprised that we slipped in something that upset someone.

      Thanks as always for listening and commenting!


      • Chris Morgan #

        Well, if I felt for even a moment that this was some sort of intentional meta-themed alienation, I may feel different about it, but that feels fairly ex post facto to me in this particular instance. Additionally, even with that as a secondary mission statement, the way this was handled, as it played out, does not feel like a fair time for such actions, because, in the end, a particularly person was singled out and unfairly maligned. In the end, it seems to have been more an issue of execution, but the execution is all we are left with when the time comes.

        I do very much enjoy the podcast, at least in this music iteration, and I am looking forward to new episodes going forward. The truth is that on occasion a person needs to be told to go fuck themselves, and there is a bitterly unhappy person out there up in the middle of the night looking for somebody to tell to go fuck themselves, and on occasion the twain shall meet and the circle shall be closed. It’s ecological, man.


  3. linnea #

    I want to thank you guys for making me realize that the version of All Hail West Texas that I have on my computer that I have been listening to for close to a decade is actually missing two tracks! I have acquired the reissue and all has been remedied.


    • Matthew Wrather OTI Staff #

      This is a really interesting phenomenon — what safeguards the integrity of a work when it’s non-physical? You can’t just lose 2 songs off of a CD.

      I notice this problem — missing tracks — a lot using (legitimate) online streaming services like Spotify or Rhapsody. The licensing of songs for distribution in various ways can get byzantine, since there are a number of rights-holders along the chain of value each with different prerogatives. A lot of people have to say “yes” before you start streaming. So it’s happened to me often that I find songs missing from albums. Normally it happens with compilations, but sometimes covers or non-standard tracks of various kinds (bonus tracks, special editions of things, remixes) are also missing.

      As an album-oriented podcast, this is dispiriting.


  4. fenzel OTI Staff #

    I know I’m a bit late on this one, but:

    a) Thanks for introducing me to this album! It’s awesome!

    b) While the notion of a singular instrument is simple, the sound produced by the guitar in this album is not simple. There is an art to playing guitar sloppily such that it communicates a ton of extra information — most notably, when played by a professional, it creates a dialectical relationship with the expectation and memory of guitar played with a more traditional sort of virtuosity – striking all the notes in chords in balance, gliding over the frets rather than bouncing notes off them like banged-up skateboarders.

    So I didn’t grant quite so quickly that this guy is “for real.” I thought this guy was creating an effect that is called “authenticity” by declining to participate in excesses that are thought of as “unreal,” but this declining itself is a participation, and there is a craft to appearing craftless.

    This really pops in the line “A pirate’s life for me.” Why is voicing this aspiration in a slightly apologetic, self-effacing way “more real” than voicing it full-throatedly? Clearly this guy identified at some point with somebody representing the idea of a pirate as a fun thing. It meant something powerful to him. And to that guy, his experience of that representation rooted in something that now is capable of sustaining what we call authenticity.

    So, then, what is this antecedent this guy is appealing to? My gut tells me it’s something we would call “unreal” — it’s a line from the Pirates of the Carribean song (which, when this album was recorded, would be referencing the Disney ride, not the movies).

    So in him relating his relationship of this line, there is a realness.

    So, there’s a realness in his relationship with the line. I think we can make that jump.

    So, can there be realness in other relationships people have with the Pirates of the Carribean song? It seems so.

    And then, if we consider it in the context with which we hear it, as an art object, is the song itself “unreal?”

    Well, it kind of is, because it’s kind of nonsense.

    But it also invites us into a relationship with it as listeners, and in this act of interpretation we have a chance of finding the same real thing Mr. Goats found.

    So I’m not willing to accept that this person way down the line, who is benefitting from the person who advanced the original fantasy that connected with all these people, is communicating a more real experience _because_ he is a stripped down dude just telling a story, whereas the original is a bunch of robots pretending to be pirates and is really fancy with lots of literal moving parts.

    It’s more that he’s communicating something more real, _and_ he is also a stripped down dude just telling a story. It’s paratactical, but people like to jump on the causal side of it because it’s comfortable and legitimizing to feel that you too can be a poet and prophet without actually having to practice guitar that much (even though Mr. Goats seems like he probably practiced or at least could have practiced guitar a whole lot, and his sloppiness was deliberate).

    It’s more real for other reasons, but not because it has disengaged from virtuosity. And it hasn’t disengaged from artifice. It has, like all of us, subsumed artifice.

    I guess similarly I dispute that artifice and realness are in opposition, as I dispute that earnestness and irony are in opposition.

    What makes the line seem real is its position in the story its texture, which creates an analogy with the functionally similar sensory experience of reality — which is full of the mind wrangling with gaps and discontinuities, and its emotional resonance, which we associate with honesty due to social judgements about whether we trust what people are saying.

    But yeah, I think the consonance between the setup he’s using and the perceived authenticity of his work is a happy and successful confluence, as is evidenced by how many, many other people can do the same thing and make nothing but fake-ass bullshit.

    It’s kind of a Yeats “Adam’s Burden” thing. We must labor to be beautiful. And while the songs were written and recorded quickly. This was a guy wasn’t a neophyte. He had a lot of practice.

    But the way the songs achieve an idea of authenticity (which is really more like an idea of order at key west and not something that, you know, exists on its own terms) in consonance with a formal presentation that itself crafts a metanarrative of authenticity makes it especially beautiful and compelling. Sort of like how a ski jump set up on flat ground isn’t any higher or lower than a ski jump set high in the mountains, but the latter sure does feel more fully expressed.

    c) Springsteen of course did an album about what happens when those Born to Run pass through the frontier: Nebraska, because when you drive cross-country from New Jersey, you go on Route 80, not Route 66. It’s also about what happens when people with no outstanding warrants for their arrest make that transition to the aforementioned.


    • Matthew Wrather OTI Staff #

      I guess similarly I dispute that artifice and realness are in opposition

      For what it’s worth the Royal We of TFT agrees with you. One of the takeaways from our discussion of Born to Run was that the difficulty of artistic labor gives rise to a need for what we called “Specialists in Representation.” Springsteen wasn’t out having brawls in Jungleland—or at least he wasn’t out having them for all the months he was locked in a studio trying to get the wall of sound in “Born to Run” just right.

      The opposition TFT would prepose is not authenticity vs. artifice, but rather authenticity vs. pretentiousness—meant literally, as in “pretending,” not in terms of its cultural association, meaning dudes wearing berets.

      (Or as I often say, “I’m not pretentious. I actually am this much of a pedant.”)

      “But Matt,” my hypothetical interlocutor would object, “Isn’t all artifice a kind of pretending? How can you accept artifice under the umbrella of authenticity? And should authenticity even have an umbrella, because it’s just a construct, man?”

      To which I’d reply, “A house is just a construct. If you like, you can sleep outside with only your beret for shelter.”

      But I digress. One of the interesting thing that’s emerging on the theoretical level from our discussion is an inventory of ways in which artifice is a weapon in the arsenal of “Being for Real.” For which please see eps 99, 101, and 102. So many things that started out in oppositions, (indie / pop; d.i.y. / slick) have turned out to be, in Sheely’s words from “First World Tools,” “continuous and hyper-dimensional.”


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