Before the Extra Lens were “the Extra Lens” and released Undercard, the Extra Lens were “the Extra Glenns”--and I think I made that more confusing than it needed to be. The Extra Glenns released one album (as well as some songs on compilations) entitled Martial Arts Weekend. Backing up, the Extra Glenns and the Extra Lens are a side project of the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle and Nothing Painted Blue’s Franklin Bruno. I am, admittedly, only familiar with the work of the former. Okay! Let’s go!
Martial Arts Weekend starts off with the great “Baltimore” a somewhat mellow track, but not compared to many Mountain Goats songs. It is laid back, but not overly quiet. The vocals and lyrics are fairly standard Darnielle: nasally, half-sung, half-spoken lines that are almost just plain storytelling. Following is the wonderfully titled “All Rooms Cable A/C Free Coffee” and it is a poppier track. While it sounds a little less Mountain Goats-y, Darnielle’s voice and lyrical style is unmistakable. “Ultraviolet” is one of the weaker tracks, which isn’t to say it is even close to being bad, but with Darnielle’s history of great lyrics, repeating the title over and over a chorus feels underwhelming, although the rest of the song boasts more great emotional storytelling. “Twelve Hands High” is poppy and sounds, within reason, un-Mountain Goats-y, and has lyrics about a horse and, even though Darnielle notes that “I know you never asked for my opinion”, he states “But I’d say that horse is crazy”.
Following that is “The River Song,” a quieter track that starts off very slowly before Darnielle eventually begins singing lines like “Let them come / Let ‘em all come down / Let them take a good, long look around / Let them see if my rivers won’t suit them / Let them drown” in a voice quieter than on previous tracks. Another great song with a great title is “Somebody Else's Parking Lot in Sebastopol.” While it’s not loud, it is delivered speedily--especially in comparison to the previous track--and Darnielle sings lines like “I wished I wished I wished that God would kill me / Instead of leaving me alone to see you standing there before me / With that sad look on your face / You took me to so many places I never thought I’d go / Yhat was the worst place” over some excellent instrumentation that doesn’t take away from the vocals, but perfectly frames them. The following track, “Memories,” uses a piano and, while I have nothing against pianos, this is the only track on the album that I don’t like. It’s a somewhat strange song with lines like “I said won’t you let me see / Your naked body” and it is accompanied by piano playing that works with Darnielle’s singing much less well than, say here.
After that, we get one in a series of three “Going to [insert place that starts with M]” tracks with the first being “Going to Morocco.” The song has the energetic yelling that isn’t outright shouting that Darnielle delivers so well over fairly energetic music. Following is “Going to Michigan,” a much mellower number. “Terminal Grain” has much more energy and, much like a good number of these songs, wouldn’t sound too out of place on a Mountain Goats album for the period if it was stripped down a little bit. The final track of the album and my personal favorite (and the third of the “Going to [insert place that starts with M]” songs) is “Going to Marrakesh.” There isn’t anything too special to say about the track except that everything works so well. The music isn’t too overbearing and the singing fits well. The one thing that does stand out though are the great lyrics, with lines like “Our love is like Jesus / But worse / Though you seal the cave up where you’d lain its body / It rises, it rises / I keep waiting for our love to die” and the unforgettable “It’s not right / And it’s not nice / To try to kill the same thing twice.”
Much like Undercard, Martial Arts Weekend is a bit of a mixed bag (or, as mixed of a bag as you can get when you’re talking about Darnielle) and many of the songs seem like they could have just been played by the Mountain Goats. This isn’t to say Bruno doesn’t clearly add his own sound onto the songs, but that Darnielle’s contribution to the songs doesn’t exactly warrant him starting a side project. While I think Undercard made more of an effort to be different, this album didn’t seem to care quite so much. If you are a fan of the Mountain Goats, you might as well pick this up because it is on par with the Mountain Goats and there are definitely some gems.