Monday, October 25, 2010

The Extra Lens: Undercard (2010)



Now that the Mountain Goats are a capitalized Big Deal, it's hard to remember a time when a John Darnielle song with a complex, full-band arrangement was an unprecedented event. But back in 2002 when he and his school friend Franklin Bruno released Martial Arts Weekend as the Extra Glenns, it was a jarring deviation from the norm of Darnielle's home recorded tapes of legend, on which he shouted to be heard over the hiss. The Glenns' album sounded restrained, professional, even slick at times; it also had the immediacy and precision of real collaboration, met with the depth and nuance of Darnielle's usual songwriting. One can't really know if this was the beginning of the shift that would create Tallhassee, The Sunset Tree, and Darnielle's other subsquent releases, but it definitely comes off that way.

These days, Goats records are far more intricate than they were ten years ago; last year's The Life of the World to Come was a moody, complex conceptual piece, its songs far more carefully crafted than one once would have expected from Darnielle's frontier cassette recorder days. Not only is this a mark of a change in his interests, it's a reflection of the fact that the Mountain Goats are now an actual band -- and to boot, albeit unofficially, Bruno is a part of it on most studio and live performances. As such, the difference between the Extra Glenns and the Mountain Goats seems suddenly as hard to define as the difference between the 6ths, the Future Bible Heroes, the Gothic Archies, and the Magnetic Fields.

Oh, and they've also signed to Merge Records and lost two letters for unknown reasons (Darnielle claims that they "rotted") to become the Extra Lens. But Martial Arts Weekend is such a consistently pleasurable, touching album that one can't help but greet the semi-revival of the name with excitement. The result, Undercard, is unsurprising; viewed in the context of its predecessor, it's a slight scaling back of arrangements and immediacy. Viewed in the context of the Mountain Goats, it's pretty much a Mountain Goats album, a mild step back from the bold, lyrical, thematically driven Life of the World to Come and back into Darnielle's land of brief, stabbing character portraits.

It was once said (by Bruno, I believe) that an Extra Glenns song was a Mountain Goats song with more than two chords. Now that a Mountain Goats song with more than two chords is, well, a Mountain Goats song, the side-projecty Extra Lens name mostly allows Darnielle to loosen up a bit in the vein of his earlier work and even sing a song or two he didn't write -- in this case, Randy Newman's "In Germany Before the War." Bruno's songs (one of which, "Some Other Way," has Darnielle threatening suicide for an ex-lover's sake in a tale that could easily be mistaken for pre-2002 Mountain Goats), melodic contributions and arrangements gel perfectly with Darnielle's sensibilities -- almost too perfectly to make a distinction. Only three songs here seem to be in a significantly different league than the stuff Darnielle's been doing with the Goats for the last four or five years. The Newman cover is the most obvious, banking on the M-agery with stark, eerie production and hushed vocals that seem to take a macabre thrill in the subject matter. Disregarding the chirpy singing, the financial crisis jam "Rockin' Rockin' Twilight of the Gods" is dangerously close to commercial alternative rock -- clipped, hook-filled, and quite entertaining, although it embodies some of Darnielle's most pedestrian, bizarre lyrics. The album's final cut, "Dogs of Clinic 17" -- one of several tracks with heavy prison imagery -- comes off like some intellectual deconstruction of riff-rock, the guitars clean and dry, the notes of discordance rare.

But even though a couple of the best tracks here were fully composed by his bandmate, you came for the new John Darnielle songs more than you probably came to hear what Frank Bruno's up to (sorry, Mr. Bruno, no offense), and you're unlikely to be let down. Here he is on "Only Existing Footage" connecting dots with a truckload of filmmaking trials and metaphors ("Lousy continuity, the coats won't match from shot to shot"); wandering a lonely netherworld of canned foods and cell phones on "Programmed Cell Death" ("I wore my suit from Hong Kong to the store tonight / 'Cause it fits me just right"); here he is on "Cruiserweights" boxing for his life ("Take a couple of shots right to the liver / Then remember what the food was like in prison"); and on "Ambivalent Landscape Z," here he is taking Lennonesque pleasure in turning a fallout shelter into "a shelter to fall out in." One of the strongest moments is the vague, powerful "Tug on the Line," a wispy, nearly inaudible ballad of a family fishing trip which yields some triumph or grotesquerie, it's hard to tell which, the stricken shorthand note of a rapid coming-of-age expressed more beautifully than in a hundred young adult novels. As ever, Darnielle's gravest minimalisms reveal his true literary brilliance -- and what nails it is his attention to detail. These songs in particular are almost nothing but detail, which makes them all the more affecting (and fascinating).

Two of my three favorite tracks here -- the other one is Franklin Bruno's "Communicating Doors" ("I know people who dig up graves just to label the bones"), chiefly because it carries one of the loveliest, most lilting melodies Darnielle has yet to sing -- come in flash-fiction bursts that reveal and tell a staggering, enticing, please-go-on amount, each in less than two minutes. The opening guitar burst "Adultery" captures rapid fire Polaroid photos to back up its title ("I'm standing in the same spot where your husband stood"), while Bruno's unforgettable, shattering "How I Left the Ministry" carries a similar tale (the same tale?) to its inevitably tragic, tremendous conclusion: a heart she draws on his leg with her finger as he drives ("My god, what an infantile gesture... my god, what an indescribable high") distracts him enough to forget where the brakes are located. The song cuts to black just before the payoff, leaving us reeling; I almost wish it were positioned as the finale here.

Even if this isn't the revelation Martial Arts Weekend was, it's a model of the increasingly underrated virtue of consistency. I don't know that all the compartmentalization is necessary, though; I have the slightest instinct that his current Mountain Goats records, great as they are, could use a bit of the levity evidenced here. And I wouldn't mind if John Darnielle covered a song more than once a decade, even if "In Germany Before the War" isn't as stunning as the Glenns' take on Leonard Cohen's "Memories." But all this griping is just minor on the face of this formidable gift for storytelling and musical illustration, a gift that continues to serve him and his audience marvelously, as I'm sure it will for years to come.

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