Mountain Goats The Sunset Tree

Three years have passed since John Darnielle signed to 4AD and ditched his boom-box for a studio, simultaneously widening his potential audience and needlessly worrying fans that wanted nothing more than to hear him yell through static and tape hiss. Last year's We Shall All Be Healed took a rare personal approach lyrically, but lacked the songwriting consistency of even his studio debut, Tallahassee, released a year prior. While The Sunset Tree might not sound much different from either, it is his strongest batch of songs since his days of peddling cassettes to a cult fan base, and its production successfully takes more risks, offering a considerable depth he'd only been able to capture sporadically on his last two records. Sure, a good deal of Sunset is Darnielle and his acoustic, and unsurprisingly, he still works when the focus is on his hugely poignant lyrics — this time ranging from child abuse to Kurt Cobain's suicide. But it's the perfectly placed production tangents, like "Dilaudid's" intense "Eleanor Rigby" stringed arrangement and the comparatively rocking "Lion's Teeth," that secure Sunset as one of his finest yet. (4AD)