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An elliptical set from the Mountain Goat(s)

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Times Staff Writer

“I am a mole, sticking his head above the surface of the earth,” John Darnielle sang during his show at Spaceland on Friday. The lyric had a dual role in this case, describing not only the psychological state of the character in the song, but also the physical setting at the club, where Darnielle’s seated position left him eye to eye with the fans in front of the stage and barely visible to those farther back.

It was an apt posture for someone whose music is often elliptical and elusive. Darnielle, who records and performs under the group name the Mountain Goats, has moved to the forefront of indie-rock’s singer-songwriter cadre, and while the spare setting of Friday’s show left things musically monochromatic -- his acoustic guitar strum was accompanied only by a bassist -- Darnielle kept the faithful enraptured with his sharp, powerful singing and manic conversation.

As he talked about the pitfalls of playing in his old home (the North Carolina-based performer hails from nearby Claremont) and diagramed the neuroses behind his fear of playing a new song, Darnielle was both cheerily engaging and slightly precious. As a singer, he evokes such artists as Jonathan Richman, Frank Black and David Byrne, wrapping them up into a sort of anti-Dashboard Confessional persona -- with the same sort of intimate intensity, but often dark and mordant rather than relentlessly encouraging.

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The prolific Darnielle mixed older songs with some compelling vignettes from the Mountain Goats’ new album, “We Shall All Be Healed.” In such songs as “Palmcorder Yanja,” about a bad night at a Travelodge with a group of speed freaks, Darnielle showed that he’s a deft, detailed chronicler of a generation in a state of drift and uncertainty. A fuller musical palette onstage would have served that vision better. It wasn’t until he was joined at the end by drummer Alianna Kalaba, from the opening act We Ragazzi, that these Mountain Goats truly kicked.


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