The Extra Lens - Undercard (Cover Artwork)
Staff Review

The Extra Lens

Undercard (2010)


When John Darnielle (the Mountain Goats) and Franklin Bruno (Nothing Painted Blue) debuted the Extra Glenns in 2002 with Martial Arts Weekend, the project simultaneously felt like a friendly one-off and a serious musical leap forward, at least for Darnielle. It was a breezy collection of songs written and performed by two friends. But by Darnielle's pre-4AD standards, it was stuffed with instruments. With a few exceptions, TMG's lo-fi days consisted of just acoustic guitar and vox, with a smattering of bass. But Extra Glenns gave Darnielle a chance to expand his range, mere months before dropping the truly expanded musicianship of Tallahassee. Bruno, meanwhile, known for loud, angry indie rock tunes with NPB, got a chance to dial it down a bit.

Eight years later and a few letters shorter, the rechristened Extra Lens finally released a followup record, Undercard. While it sounds a great deal like Martial Arts Weekend, it feels like a step back musically after all of the indie rock leanings Darnielle embraced on records like Heretic Pride and The Sunset Tree. The lyrics are still sad, but the music itself is brighter, flecked with Bruno's shimmering guitar and piano parts. Darnielle handles lead vocals, and he sounds exactly like himself. He's a great songwriter, but he pretty much has two choices as a singer, shouting and whispering. Either way it's a little nasal.

Undercard is freed from the emotional weight of TMG's last few records. This isn't a concept album about dead family members, although it certainly tackles familiar TMG concepts like infidelity and suicide. In a sense, Undercard is the Burn After Reading to The Life of the World to Come's No Country for Old Men. It's funnier and lighter and still dark, but also slightly disappointing for those same reasons. Give me intense songs about cancer and drug abuse, man. I just wanna relate.

Still, this is Darnielle we're talking about. That guy doesn't fail. So while Undercard might not pack the same resonance as Get Lonely, it's still a quality effort. Take a song like "How I Left the Ministry," a pleasant little ditty about a preacher and his neighbor's wife who get into a car accident while on their way to a hotel for athletic displays of adultery. The lyrics pack in self-loathing and sexual desire, with lines like "The last thing I saw before falling unconscious / Was your right hand tracing a heart on my thigh / And I thought, ‘My God what an infantile gesture' / And I thought ‘My God what an indescribable high'" delivering a wallop.

Undercard is a lesser work for Darnielle and Bruno, but it's still better than most of the records released this year. Put it another way: Longtime fans might be underwhelmed but still satisfied. New converts can enjoy it with the knowledge that both artists' discographies are even better than this album.