The last time The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle and Nothing Painted Blue/The Human Hearts’s Franklin Bruno collaborated on a project, I hadn’t heard of either band. That was the oh-so-long-ago year of 2002, when they put out the album “Martial Arts Weekend” under the band name The Extra Glenns. Since that time, The Mountain Goats have gone on to a rich history and indie-level popularity having released a grand total of SIX records. Bruno has been significantly less active band-wise, as Nothing Painted Blue is only sporadically active these days and The Human Hearts have put out only one album so far (in 2007). One of the more fascinating things about Bruno and Darnielle is that they’re both essentially solo artists with backing bands. The faces behind the guitars and drums may change, but the vocals and lyrics stay the same. With Bruno’s lack of progress on the music front in the last several years, he may be feeling a little bit pent up creatively and looking for that next big break. In Darnielle’s case, he could be on the verge of burnout having released so much music in such a short period of time, most of it with sharp thematic curves. The last Mountain Goats album, “The Life of the World to Come”, played entirely on verses in the Bible that Darnielle found fascinating. 2006’s “Get Lonely” was ostensibly a record about a tragic breakup. Those are just a couple of the many issues he’s dealt with the last 8 years, and rarely has he had a moment to let loose. Perhaps that’s why reuniting with Bruno for another album seemed like such a great idea right now. They’ve changed their name from The Extra Glenns to The Extra Lens, and the new album is almost appropriately titled “Undercard”.
In the sport of boxing, the undercard event is defined as the precursor to the main event. To put it in more easily definable music terms, an undercard band would be opening for a headliner. By calling their record “Undercard” and using the boxing ring imagery for the cover, The Extra Lens make sure to set the bar slightly lower than what you might expect from a Mountain Goats or a Nothing Painted Blue/Human Hearts. Even if these thinly veiled metaphors aren’t getting the message across, there’s not a whole lot on the record you’re going to easily mistake for either of these two guys’ bands. Okay, so the easiest thing to do is to call this another Mountain Goats album. Understandably, mostly because Darnielle has lead vocals on every song, with the occasional harmony/backing vocal from Bruno. Darnielle wrote most of the songs, and he’s a wordsmith true and true, though there are a couple of Bruno-penned tracks that are equally vivacious lyrically.
What truly differentiates this Extra Lens record from anything either of them have done are the lack of cohesive themes and the sheer pop energy. Yes, there are stories of underdogs and people “down for the count”, but there’s no firm grasp on any of it, so don’t worry about trying to understand something that purposely doesn’t make sense. The song titles give you a decent idea of what each song is about. “Adultery” is about cheating on your spouse. “Only Existing Footage” is about the filming of a movie gone horribly wrong. “Tug on the Line” is a story about a fish. You get the idea. It’s all put together in nice prose that you are free to gush over or analyza to whatever ends you like. Then there’s that “pop energy”. Those two words are deceiving when used here, but the more fleshed out idea is that most of the songs on “Undercard” are genuinely fun and have solid hooks that can stick in your head. The mere thought of John Darnielle unbuttoning a button on his shirt, chugging a beer and flashing a big smile is completely ludicrous. The guy always seems so in control and self-serious that the much looser vibe of this record is like finding out your straightlaced suit-and-tie boss moonlights as some amazing club DJ on the weekends. Not that he wasn’t great before, but now thanks to this album he seems that much more awesome. The Mountain Goats is his day job, but at night he gets together with a friend and they just jam, playing whatever feels good. One listen to that rag-tag guitar strumming on “Rockin’ Rockin’ Twilight of the Gods” and there’s no way you can confuse this with something The Mountain Goats would do. The couple quiet moments, such as the seemingly random and highly ominous Randy Newman cover of “In Germany Before the War”, make for a more layered and smart approach. Those songs are more about establishing an atmosphere or mood, which balances out the lovely toe-tappers and prevents the wheels from completely falling off the wagon.
The simplest way for you to enjoy “Undercard” is to sit back and relax. There’s some serious temptation to pore over every word and read the surprisingly extensive liner notes in which Darnielle and Bruno seem to try and explain every song in deep detail, but that’s stuff best saved for a rainy day. For the moment, just let the rather fun songs be only that and nothing more, because the tales of boxing beatdowns and suicide prevention will get you down if you don’t understand the black humor of it all. The twisted and morbid words counteract many of the upbeat melodies, and it’s a pretty sly joke not everybody will understand. That’s okay though, because plainspoken lyrics aren’t Darnielle’s or Bruno’s thing. Instead they both seem content to have a brief respite from the burdens their respective “bands” to work together as friends. Just by the way “Undercard” loosely flows you can tell these two guys have been friends for a long time. It’s nice that they’ve decided to give this project another go after the 8-year hiatus. Let’s just hope The Extra Lens doesn’t wait that long again to make another record. This one’s such a delight it only leaves you wanting more.