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The Extra Glenns - Martial Arts Weekend

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Artist: The Extra Glenns

Album: Martial Arts Weekend

Label: Absolutely Kosher

Review date: Mar. 31, 2002

In 1977 Leonard Cohen – he of the elegantly spartan, ultra-literate folk songs – and Phil Spector – the volatile progenitor of a full-throttle “wall of sound” recording technique – joined forces to record Cohen’s Death of a Ladies Man LP. Needless to say, the two went together like honey and battery acid, with the latter (in the form of Spector) basically engulfing the former (in the form of Cohen). In short it was a bad idea played out to its inevitable conclusion, and Cohen was fortunate to escape without having to re-title the record Death of a Career.

Thankfully this story does not in the slightest resemble that of The Extra Glenns, the new collaborative effort of John Darnielle (The Mountain Goats) and Franklin Bruno (Nothing Painted Blue), even despite their decision to cover ‘Memories’ from Death of a Ladies Man midway through their full-length debut, Martial Arts Weekend. This is mostly because Bruno, unlike Spector, is a self-effacing second man whose presence is, nevertheless, a major part of the reason why Martial Arts Weekend sounds so fresh. Okay, let’s face it: even Mountain Goats purists – those who will follow Darnielle’s reedy voice and favourite small handful of chords anywhere (anywhere usually amounting to the play school four-track dropped one too many times down the basement stairs) – must have wondered by now how great a decently recorded Goats record with a bit of multi-instrumental muscle might sound. And the answer, of course, is pretty damn great. Hell, the Darnielle who interprets “texture” as “that same chord faster and louder… now faster and louder still!” has always been great regardless. But now when he sings about the “supersonic whine” that begins “near the back of (his) skull” when boy fingers touch girl fingers (in “Going to Michigan”) he’s got a very talented friend sitting across from him in a recording studio to render that whine musically. And that is a far better thing, both on paper and on record, than, for instance, Bob Pollard emerging from his bedroom to meet Ric Ocasek and a handful of fancy recording equipment in the hall. Darnielle and Bruno aren’t a fancy pairing of big names; they’re friends, and a mutual respect and admiration shines through very clearly in their songs.

Of course one of the major motivations behind the adoption of a lo-fi aesthetic in the first place, at least for those who can afford otherwise, is a belief that “better” production is hopelessly synthetic - a tool for making music digestible at the expense of emotional integrity and the sheer joy of caprice. The Extra Glenns don’t sacrifice anything in this department, though, and there’s little to go on that suggests Darnielle ever would. In fact, whether it’s Bruno’s presence or that of a little bit of fresh studio air, Darnielle sounds simultaneously more restrained and adventurous than ever. Not having to shout across the kitchen to commit one’s voice to tape means a new commitment to nuance, and this comes across just as strongly in the playing, Bruno’s in particular.

Darnielle is, of course, as literate, likeable, and witty as ever. Even when references to the esoteric (sure Elliott Smith is also down with his Kierkagaard, but how about the Blue Cheer catalog?) begin to feel hollow after their novelty wears off, descriptions like that of “dogfish swimming beneath the jetty where our legs hung down” to reveal the mysterious blend of beauty and pain in the motion of a departing loved one (“Malevolent Seascape Y”), or that of a hopelessly perpetual romantic connection being “like Jesus, but worse” (“Going to Marrakesh – the cycle continues!) refuse to be anything less than perfect on repeat listens. And trust me, there will be plenty of repeat listens.

By Nathan Hogan

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