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The Extra Lens - Undercard

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Artist: The Extra Lens

Album: Undercard

Label: Merge

Review date: Oct. 19, 2010

Now that Superchunk has finished dusting off the cobwebs, it seems like the next order of business is a reconquering of nostalgic 1990s indie rock by Merge Records. The case up for debate: superduo John Darnielle and Franklin Bruno, a.k.a. The Extra Lens, formerly known as the Extra Glenns. This much-whispered about collaboration finally gets a release, and in keeping with the times, Darnielle and Bruno have a new hi-fi sound that better reflects the goings-on of their main projects, The Mountain Goats and Nothing Painted Blue, respectively.

Darnielle is no stranger to collaborative endeavors. For all of them, they are most often at their best when the angle between the two partners is at its highest. Moon Colony Bloodbath, featuring John Vanderslice, is an anemic release despite its crazy moon monster premise, primarily because Vanderslice just comes off as a Mountain Goat for Dummies. Black Pear Tree flourishes, however, as Darnielle’s dark visions are brought into focus by Kaki King’s pure, piercing, female voice. She provides a foil and not just a second fiddle.

What is peculiar about Undercard is the frequency with which Bruno flops back and forth between these two roles. The result is an inconsistent album that is sophomoric at turns and sublime at others. This largely corresponds with how close the songs are to Mountain Goats territory. Darnielle is the obvious captain of the whole record, a precedent that is unsurprising given the support roles Bruno has played on most of his records since Tallahassee. The issue is that Darnielle attempts to preserve the Extra Lens identity even as he commandeers the composition, causing many songs to resemble watered-down and seemingly cast-off ideas from everything from Get Lonely (i.e. “Cruiserweights”) to Heretic Pride (i.e. “Only Exiting Footage”). The songs sound like the Mountain Goats, but without the first-person emotional heft that distinguishes them from angsty high school kids or adults in a mid-life crisis. What’s kept his full fidelity records of the past decade working has been his unrelenting earnestness and personal overshare. By foregoing that for more middle-of-the-road lyrical content, the structures just sound simple, and the words are incidental at best, irrelevant at worst.

Interestingly enough, Darnielle salvages many Extra Lens songs by bringing them into full-blown Goats territory. “Programmed Cell Death” embraces the kind of evocative everyday spirituality that makes The Mountain Goats such a mainstay for the heart-on-sleeve-crowd: a tale of wearing a suit from Hong Kong to the store, where there are “mounds of California avocados like offerings to an unresponsive god,” because it fits just right, while people throw themselves against the sky. These kinds of emotional setpieces are overwhelming, not just for the people listening, but also for Bruno.

Not to say that Bruno is outmatched or overrun all the time. His attempts at sonic variety are mostly engaging. “Communicating Doors,” for example, runs the risk of becoming bad high-school balladry, but the McCartney-circa-“Norwegian Wood” bass lines elevate it into something quite clever. Similarly, the heavy metal Christmas theme on “How I Left the Ministry” renders Darnielle superfluous. Ditto for “Rockin Rockin Twilight of the Gods,” where hyperactive syncopation lives at the crossroads of bossa nova and Buddy Holly (if such an intersection even exists).

It’s only when the ability to clearly delineate individual contributions is rendered inconsequential that the Extra Lens concept becomes fully realized. That unified voice first crops up in the count-off that starts the record on “Adultry,” but most clearly manifests itself on “Some Other Way.” Here, the aggression in acoustic strumming and electric guitar work intertwine and become co-dependant, and Bruno provides vocal counterparts that go beyond ad lib announcements of his presence. The Extra Lens even gives notice that the new Merge wave is a real force with closer “Dogs of Clinic 17,” circumambulating the Superchunk sound of yesterday and today. It suggests that there’s something to rebirth.

But the prevailing theme here is that the collaborative cylinder never really starts turning. Should The Extra Lens keep at it? If the partnership is to continue, Darnielle and Bruno should wait until they’ve gathered more songs like “Some Other Way.” Otherwise, in today’s neverending stream of quickfire MP3s, it’s extraneous.

By Evan Hanlon

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