John Darnielle, who records as The Mountain Goats, has one of the most omnivorous musical minds we know of: His curiosity, like his knowledge, knows almost no bounds. A few years ago, Darnielle put together a list for eMusic of that have inspired him spiritually, and it’s unsurprisingly wide-ranging. From Tibetan chant to gospel to reggae to contemporary Christian rock, these are records that explore, profess, celebrate, and reaffirm faith fro all angles — all refracted through the prism of our of our greatest contemporary singer-songwriters. Below, in Darnielle’s words, are the spiritual roots of The Mountain Goats. — eMusic Editorial Staff
The L.A. Mass Choir
If you've heard Leonard Cohen's The Future, then you've heard the LA Mass Choir already. Choral gospel doesn't often scratch the itch that outside-looking-in listeners often come to gospel for: its edges are smooth, its orchestration crisp, its arrangements precise. For me, the sound of a mass choir has always been one of the great glories of music — there's so much power in unison, and so much power in harmony, and a mass choir gives you both in generous proportions. The sheer emotionalism of a song like "Worthy" (as much funk-inflected light jazz as gospel, and an indication of the breadth of the L.A. Mass Choir's musical vision) sounds to me like the sort of thing no music fanatic could resist. When I worked the night shift at a hospital for profoundly disabled children, I listened to gospel radio all night. This was the stuff that got me through those shifts.
Look, some of you might wanna say to me here, "John," you might wanna say: "It doesn't go into your spiritual playlist just because you like it." To you I would say in response, you are absolutely right: I too hate lists that come up with some bogus umbrella description but aren't actually about anything other than what the author's listening to at that moment. Having said that, I'm still going to argue for Larkin Grimm on the spiritual playlist, and not just because of "Durge," a reimagined Hindu chant. Larkin Grimm's music has always sounded to me almost confrontationally spiritual: like the sound of someone revealing the details of a personal cosmology as it's appeared to her in dreams. My favorite track on Parplar is "Be My Host," which crosses ideas of demon possession & parasitism with sexuality until everything's bled together and can't be extricated.
It's hard not to go with Songs, the first greatest hits collection — it's more solid end-to-end. But the title of this one comes from "Jacob & Two Women", which is one of the best Christian songs of the past thirty or forty years by anybody and an incredible song by any measure. (My favorite version of it is Carolyn Arends's graceful reading on Awesome God: A Tribute to Rich Mullins.) It's a song that shows Mullins at his best: witty; clever; open; doubting; playful; faithful; wistful; in touch with the sorrow & the loss & the hope & the wonder that lies underneath all spiritual seeking, and all housed in one flesh-and-blood, wholly unpretentious person. There's also "Step by Step" and "Calling Out Your Name" here — both clear evidence of how truly great a songwriter Mullins was and how much the music world lost when he died.
Possibly the greatest reggae album of all time. You get apocalyptic Rastafarianism, sweet harmony, crucial grooves laid down by a murderously tight band, and some of the best lead vocals on any album anywhere. Everything about it is great; if you let it carry you away, you might miss that the vision at its heart is an impassioned, fiery, end-of-the-known-world communion with the Creator. But it is.
Shartse College of Ganden Monastery
I'm nobody's aesthete: I can't listen to stuff just for the sound. I need a connection. So it's hard to listen to this without hearing Jarvis Cocker in my ear saying "everybody hates a tourist." I don't know what the monks are saying when they chant, and I don't have access to anything more specific about their prayers than that they must somehow involve Buddhism. So there's an aspect of spiritual voyeurism involved. Still, what can I say? The window was open, and I was walking past, and there was a sign on the porch saying "listen as long as you like": that's what this release is. It's hard for me to imagine anybody interested in spiritual music not responding to all these human voices aspiring toward the Divine, erecting long, complex structures from one raw material — voice — until it seems like the human voice and the divine essence are, and have always been, a unity. Listen to the prayers in their entirety and it will be hard to miss the point.
Verdell Primeaux & Johnny Mike
I come into this music blind: what I know about Native American music is, I'd guess, what most non-natives know, i.e., very little. Primeaux, according to the duo's website, is Oglala/Yankton Sioux from Nebraska, while Mike is Diné (Navajo) from Black Mesa, Arizona. The six songs here are studio recordings of the two in performance with drums, rattles, and deep, reverberating voices in harmony: it is deeply engrossing. It's hard to say what comes first with music from so far outside one's own traditions: the reaction one has to it, or the reaction one expects to have — the relationship between Native Americans and we more recent visitors to the country being pretty thorny territory, filled with all the baggage of colonial history. The music, one hopes, is beyond all such concerns. It gallops and swells. I could listen to this all day. Try the second song for a great first look at the good things in store here.
As far as I am concerned the Anonymous 4 can do no wrong. Here they take on a surprisingly varied set of texts; where An English Ladymass develops a single mood until the entire picture is clear, this looks in every corner of the grotto. I feel such gratitude for Anonymous 4 albums; they always do the job. You know how incense packages make these claims about how their products are gonna purify the air and cleanse it of toxins and restore balance to an ailing world? The Anonymous 4 actually do all that without even making a big deal about it.
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
Nusrat, the great emissary of qawwali to the west, left behind so much recorded material that it's hard to know where to start. What's worse, people drag words like "authentic" into the debate. Who needs it? This one's something of a quiet recording, so you'll need to turn it up a little, but it's as true today as it was the first time I heard Nusrat doing his thing: I cannot imagine a person not responding, deeply and instinctively, to this music. It taps the root.
Last Pagan Rites
The shorthand way of describing what this sounds like is to mention Arvo Pärt, but that'd only put you in the neighborhood. Kavavicius isn't Pärt, and Last Pagan Rites, if it's a devotional work, is devoted to lost things: memories of faith, old resonating voices from a time before any of us were here. Musically, it's vocal polyphony accompanied by organ & droning bells & horns, and it is very special, and it will take you to new places which are actually, maybe, very old places. The depths in some of this will reach places you may not know you have in you.
OK, let's be up front here, so there are no illusions: Sara Groves writes pleasant folk-based contemporary Christian music. If the word "pleasant" is a red flag for you, and you need something with blood in it, well, friend, sometimes I feel that way too, and I direct you toward the Larkin Grimm album. But the openness, the availability, the clear, honest yearning for a simple holiness — decency and forthrightness as high aspirations in a tired & angry world — these qualities shining forth from these songs like light through a window: that's worth something, too. At the very least, try "The Word" and "Painting Pictures of Egypt": true songs, human songs, great songs.