Catalog Crawl: The Mountain Goats (EPs)

Catalog Crawl

Music nerds love ranked lists. Music nerds love thoughtful commentary. Music nerds love carefully curated playlists. Catalog Crawl provides all of these things and more. In these features, Strange Currencies takes an exhaustive look at the discographies of our favorite artists — the ones who reside at the core of our music obsession.

Last week, we took a tour through the catalog of the Mountain Goats: the one-time lo-fi solo project of California singer-songwriter John Darnielle, and now a prolific indie rock quartet. If you have somehow found yourself here before reading that piece — and/or are unfamiliar with the Mountain Goats’ full-length releases — find it here, and return to this article later. That one is not only the easier entry point on a sonic level, but it also houses the songs that you’re far more likely to be familiar with.

This piece here is something that we’ve never done with the Catalog Crawl series until now. See, as I was assembling the ranking and playlist for last week’s feature, I was struck at just how much of John Darnielle’s best material has been relegated to non-LP releases. And while we may, in time, give Darnielle the expanded song list treatment that we’ve thus far reserved to only The Beatles and Pavement, I felt compelled to offer up something of a quick turnaround “advanced course” on the Mountain Goats. What that led to was this companion piece focusing on the project’s many EP releases.

There’s often room for interpretation when defining an artist’s catalog for these features, and this one is no different. For our purposes, I observed a four-song minimum to define a release as an EP (anything less was considered a single). Not only that, but a release like the Dilaudid EP was ineligible, because while it does have four songs, two are identical versions to those on a concurrent LP. I also left off two collaborative EPs (Black Pear Tree with Kaki King, and Moon Colony Bloodbath with John Vanderslice). What that left eligible was a list of twenty-one Mountain Goats EPs released between 1992-2018.

The ratings here may potentially ruffle a few feathers. While some of these releases are among the most beloved entries in the Mountain Goats discography, I always have a hard time assessing these funny little half-albums on the same scale as their full-length counterparts. Whereas the bulk of the scores in our original Mountain Goats feature fell within the 7.0-8.5 range, the releases featured here tend to cluster at around a full point below. For what it’s worth, I tend to be very hesitant to give EPs a score above 9.0, with a few notable exceptions.

The playlist rules are straightforward: one song per release. Since the Mountain Goats were far more focused on EPs during the earlier years of the project, the playlist skews heavily toward solo, boombox-recorded John Darnielle songs. And while I personally have absolutely no problem with that, it reinforces the fact that the earlier feature is a far more suitable introduction for most listeners. Enjoy!

Selected Goths in Ambient




Released as a companion to 2017’s Goths, Selected Goths in Ambient is an interesting idea executed relatively well. Building upon themes from its parent record, Selected Goths delivers the ambience promised in its title. And while no one really turns to the Mountain Goats for ambient music, it’s a decent attempt at the genre by John Darnielle and multi-instrumentalist Matt Douglas.

One for the playlist: Aside from the mildly disorienting “Vanishing Act,” Selected Goths maintains a pretty consistent vibe throughout. I’ll just go with the closing “Grave Dust,” and add it as a fitting denouement to the playlist.

Hex of Infinite Binding




The Mountain Goats have largely focused on full-length releases during their current incarnation as a quartet, which makes 2018’s Hex of Infinite Binding their most recent EP to date. And, aside from the completely out-of-character Selected Goths in Ambient, Hex stands as the least essential EP that the group has released. Granted, John Darnielle seems physically incapable of writing a bad song, so there are some worthwhile ideas here, but this one never quite coalesces into a particularly compelling listen.

One for the playlist: The opening “Song for Ted Sallis” crafts the EP’s most interesting sonic landscape. John Darnielle’s guitar and Matt Douglas’ woodwinds are supported by subtle touches from guest percussionist Matt Espy, and the gurgling sounds underneath contribute to an ominous atmosphere.

Marsh Witch Visions




Four songs about Ozzy Osbourne — plus a demo of Goths opener “Rain in Soho” — form the basis of this 2017 EP, which finds John Darnielle unaccompanied on acoustic guitar. But lest you think that Marsh Witch Visions is a return to the Mountain Goats’ lo-fi roots, as these songs (at least the non-demos) are captured with a clarity more in line with where the project was in the 2010s. While none of the tracks here are outright stunners, Visions was a welcome stopgap between LPs.

One for the playlist: A surprisingly sweet tribute to Ozzy’s formative years, “Marsh Witch Vision” opens this set on its most charming and sentimental note.

Orange Raja, Blood Royal




While it’s surpassed by several other early Mountain Goats EPs, Orange Raja, Blood Royal stands out from the pack, largely because of the work of violinist Alastair Galbraith. Though this addition isn’t always for the best — Galbraith frequently slips in and out of tune and time — his presence adds a unique charm to this four-song set.

One for the playlist: The combination of Darnielle and Galbraith reach a point of “perfect imperfection” on the glimmering highlight “Raja Vocative.” It is one of the finest songs in any era of the Mountain Goats’ discography.





One of the more diminutive EPs in the Mountain Goats’ catalog — and presently available on Protein Source of the Future…Now! — 1994’s Philyra clocks in at just under eight minutes. There are no outright classics among these four songs, but you do get at least one fun lark, another Casio track, and one clear highlight in “Love Cuts the Strings.”

One for the playlist: As mentioned above, “Love Cuts the Strings” is the best thing here by a reasonably large margin. It’s a characteristically intense performance that brims with genuine energy and excitement.

Taking the Dative




By the time of 1994’s Taking the Dative — the fifth Mountain Goats EP — something of a template had been established for these releases. Despite any predictability in fidelity, arrangements, and/or themes, these six tracks still manage to surprise with their ability to wrest vivid scenes from their meager means. In the liner notes to Ghana — where Taking the Dative can be found today — Darnielle jokes about being forced to record these songs at knifepoint; absurd sure, but that could provide a plausible cause for the urgency displayed here.

One for the playlist: As a Portlander, the Lloyd Center reference alone is probably enough for me to pick “Standard Bitter Love Song #8.” Still, I suspect that it’s the best song here either way — though “Chino Love Song 1979” is also great.

Songs for Petronius




The first Mountain Goats EP — and a great deal more accessible than the contemporaneous full-length tape, Taboo VI: The HomecomingSongs for Petronius represents an auspicious start for John Darnielle’s pet project. These five tracks (now all available on Bitter Melon Farm) give a good glimpse of what was to come, as they mix Darnielle’s earnest lyricism with the minimalist charm of his lo-fi period. There are even a pair of Casio tracks thrown in for good measure, including the wistful closer “Pure Love.”

One for the playlist: Darnielle essentially launches two of his most beloved song series with “Alpha Double Negative: Going to Catalina.” Boasting the most memorable chorus on Petronius, it’s the clear highlight of these tracks.

Babylon Springs




Released in the lead-up to 2006’s Get Lonely, Babylon Springs features five tracks that may have felt a bit out of place on that LP. Resultantly, there’s a bit of a hodgepodge feel to this one, but its better moments make for solid additions to the Mountain Goats catalog. Of these, the cover of Trembling Blues Stars’ “Sometimes I Still Feel the Bruise” is often cited as the fan favorite.

One for the playlist: Aside from the aforementioned cover song, I’ve always been a fan of “Alibi.” The breezy pacing and surf-adjacent guitars make for a welcome anomaly in the Mountain Goats’ discography.

Yam, the King of Crops




In the liner notes to Protein Source of the Future…Now!, John Darnielle states that “If cornered, I will admit that Yam is my favorite Mountain Goats release.” While I don’t share that assessment, there’s something undeniably intriguing about this set of eight seemingly-slight songs. I just wish I had a little more insight into the thread that ties them all together: a secret that perhaps only Darnielle himself knows.

One for the playlist: There’s a genuine sense of pathos expressed in “Seed Song,” where Darnielle deprives both the song’s listener and narrator of the “ironic ending” that would provide the track with the expected levity. It’s a pretty brilliant trick of songwriting.

Satanic Messiah




While the Mountain Goats had become a genuine three-piece band by the time of 2008’s Satanic Messiah — having released Heretic Pride earlier that year — this four-song set only features solo recordings by John Darnielle. Messiah is among the rarer items in the Goats’ discography — released only in a limited run, and not presently available on streaming services — but it’s not hard to imagine fans of either era of the project’s history finding plenty to enjoy here.

One for the playlist: The closing “Gojam Province 1968” is the strongest track here: a piano-led piece that, in some ways, seems to anticipate the Mountain Goats’ next LP, The Life of the World to Come.

Chile de Arbol




Five songs, all excellent, Chile de Arbol is one of the best early Mountain Goats releases. All of these tracks are now available on Protein Source of the Future, and they’re a big part of the reason why that is my favorite of the three compilations of pre-fame Mountain Goats recordings. The whole thing is over in barely more than ten minutes, but Chile feels like an essential Goats release.

One for the playlist: Although Chile de Arbol contains what is arguably John Darnielle’s finest Casio track (“Going to Malibu”), even it takes a back seat to the ebullient “Alphabetizing” — one of the definitive early Mountain Goats tracks.

On Juhu Beach




Originally issued by the Japanese imprint Nursecall, On Juhu Beach was released amidst three EPs that the Mountain Goats recorded for the American label Yoyo Recordings — who eventually issued this five-song set in digital form. It’s a particularly rough example of John Darnielle’s boombox aesthetic, but as expected, the songs are consistently excellent, if a bit uncharacteristically subdued.

One for the playlist: On Juhu Beach isn’t presently available on streaming services, but if it were, “Burned My Tongue” would serve as a fine representative of the comparatively low-key vibe of this release.

Beautiful Rat Sunset




On the lengthier end of the Mountain Goats EP spectrum — it’s one of two that surpass the twenty-minute mark — Beautiful Rat Sunset feels like something of a major statement. It seems of a piece with the outstanding 1994 LP Zopilote Machine, and while the songs don’t cumulatively quite match the ones found there, they’re not far off in terms of average quality.

One for the playlist: The highlight here is “New Star Song.” It’s an exuberant performance that finds John Darnielle emphasizing the stop-time chords so heavily that you can hear his uncut guitar strings rattling against each other. Who needs a rhythm section anyway?

Jack & Faye

recorded 1995-96



Never officially released, Jack & Faye has eventually found its way to fans in the decades since its recording. But while its unofficial nature might suggest that this is a lesser work, these four tracks can stand with just about any EP released during the Mountain Goats’ lo-fi era. It’s still not available on streaming services, but fans are advised to track it down.

One for the playlist: There is little in the lyrics to “Raid on Entebbe” that overtly connect the song to the film of the same name, or the Israeli counter-terrorism operation that it depicts. Regardless, it’s a track of ominous, vivid imagery, and Darnielle’s characteristically ferocious rhythmic strumming.

Transmissions to Horace




Among the more generous Mountain Goats EPs, Transmissions to Horace contains ten songs — several of which are outstanding. While these tracks are presently available on Bitter Melon Farm, it’s worth listening to them as John Darnielle originally intended. They hold together well as a cohesive whole, and make for what was arguably the most impressive Mountain Goats release to date.

One for the playlist: There’s a breezily cinematic nature to “Teenage World” that offers an early preview of the kind of travelogues that John Darnielle would bring to perfection on later LPs, such as Full Force Galesburg and All Hail West Texas.

Songs About Fire




Easily one of the best of the early Mountain Goats EPs, Songs About Fire is also, unfortunately, one of the shortest as well. Stylistically, there’s not a ton that separates it from the other EPs and albums of this era, but it still catches John Darnielle in fine form on its four brief tracks.

One for the playlist: The closing “Stars Around Her” is a definite standout. Rachel Ware’s bass adds a nice countermelody, and Darnielle spins a setting that is both revealing and mysterious.

Songs for Peter Hughes




Bassist and backing vocalist Rachel Ware is a significant presence across the four tracks that comprise Songs for Peter Hughes: ironically, an EP dedicated to her eventual replacement. Ware’s contributions help to make Peter Hughes stand among the finest Mountain Goats releases on an “average song quality” basis. The only flaw is that there isn’t more of it.

One for the playlist: Any of the four songs here are worthy of inclusion, but it’s the re-recording of the Transmissions to Horace track “No, I Can’t” that gets the call. It brilliantly displays John Darnielle’s knack for turning the seemingly-mundane into something borderline profound.

Isopanisad Radio Hour




From 1998-2001, the Mountain Goats released three EPs on the small Olympia, Washington label, Yoyo Recordings. While the second of these, 2000’s Isopanisad Radio Hour, is generally considered the weakest of the trio, it’s still a front-to-back excellent effort. Isopanisad stands out in part because it finds John Darnielle beginning to expand his arrangements on a handful of its tracks. In a sense, that may make it sound transitional, but it still finds Darnielle operating near his peak.

One for the playlist: Already an excellent song to begin with, “Cobscook Bay” is made even better by the subtle touches of glockenspiel and a heavily-tremoloed electric guitar. Bear in mind that in 2000 this still would’ve been considered an indulgence for the Mountain Goats.

Nine Black Poppies




Nine Black Poppies featured some of the cleanest Mountain Goats recordings to date — some of which were recorded in an actual studio with Rachel Ware. That clarity of sound helps to emphasize the more anthemic moments on these nine songs, but the homespun charm that defined John Darnielle’s previous work can be found in the presence of several boombox-recorded tracks. Interestingly enough, the consistent quality of the songwriting largely smooths over any discrepancies in fidelity.

One for the playlist: Like a lot of Mountain Goats full-length releases, Nine Black Poppies puts its marquee track right up front with “Cubs in Five.” Though the outcome of the 2016 World Series may have given the song a slightly different resonance today — the Cubs actually prevailed in seven games — it’s still a Mountain Goats classic.

New Asian Cinema




The first of the three Yoyo EPs, New Asian Cinema is just about as flawless of a release as you’ll find in the Mountain Goats’ discography. There are five songs here, and each of them is superb. And, like the other Yoyo releases, it’s just begging for a vinyl reissue. How about a boxset, John?

One for the playlist: The presence of Lalitree Darnielle helps to elevate the already-great opener “Cao Dai Blowout.” Her banjo, and one badass father’s ghost, make for an awesome compact little track.

Devil in the Shortwave




The three Yoyo EPs stand as some of the most beloved work in the Mountain Goats catalog. In fact, you could make an argument — and plenty of fans have — that combining the trio would make a collection that rivals any of the project’s full-length LPs. Generally viewed as the finest of the three, 2001’s Devil in the Shortwave is consistently outstanding. There isn’t a single wasted second among these twelve minutes, and beyond a nice cover of Ewan MacColl’s “Dirty Old Town,” Shortwave features four classic John Darnielle originals from an era widely viewed as his peak.

One for the playlist: While the ‘favorite’ Mountain Goats songs tend to be of the sad and/or angry variety, their more jubilant tracks are often equally praise-worthy. “Commandante” is is a masterwork of economy, pairing a banjo-paying collector of cow figurines with a wannabe revolutionary as they prepare to “sail through the night sky like a pair of bottle rockets.”


  • Matt Ryan

    Matt Ryan founded Strange Currencies Music in January 2020, and remains the site's editor-in-chief. The creator of the "A Century of Song" project and co-host of the "Strange Currencies Podcast," Matt enjoys a wide variety of genres, but has a particular affinity for 60s pop, 90s indie rock, and post-bop jazz. He is an avid collector of vinyl, and a multi-instrumentalist who has played/recorded with several different bands and projects.

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