As one of my birthday presents to myself, I had bought the album Undercard by The Extra Lens. The Extra Lens consist of Franklin Bruno and The Mountain Goats‘ John Darnielle, and they used to be known as The Extra Glenns. Why they changed their moniker I’ve no idea, other than possibly playing off the theme of their song “Only Existing Footage” from the album (which is about a B-movie production gone wrong), or just to mess with people’s minds and record stores’ cataloguing system. The Extra Glenns‘ 2001 album Martial Arts Weekend is one of my all-time favourite albums, so I was excited about finally getting a follow-up.
I feel like I’m still trying to make up my mind about Undercard, but it has so far been a rather underwhelming experience. It’s a pleasant album, great to have on in the background, with some decent lyrics and melodies, but the arrangements and vocals never really grab me.
One specific problem I have with several tracks, is the levels of the vocals. On the two of the album’s better tracks, “Cruiserweights” and “Dogs Of Clinic 17”, the vocals sometimes get so low and breezy-sounding that they’ll be drowned out by the instruments. Unless I really focus on the songs when listening to them, it sounds like words occasionally go missing.
I haven’t really liked John Darrnielle’s last three albums nor his last few EPs all that much, but there have been some real gems – like “Sarcofago Live” from Satanic Messiah, “Woke Up New” and “Keeping House” from Get Lonely, “The Last Man On Earth” from Heretic Pride, and “Thank You Mario But Our Princess Is In Another Castle” from The Black Pear Tree, to mention a few. But the good stuff has been spread over too many releases with too many throwaway tracks in between. Yet the critics still seem to adore these works – renowned indie hipster website Pitchfork has rated each of the last six albums by The Mountain Goats better than the other, starting out with a 6.7 to 2002’s Tallahassee and finishing with a 8.4 to 2009’s The Life Of The World To Come – and he is presumably reaching out to a wider audience than ever before.
Makes me wonder whether I’ve either outgrown John Darnielle, or if I’m suffering from the things were better back in my day syndrome, perhaps mixed with the this band was better when fewer people liked them syndrome. Or maybe I never really liked his music that much to begin with? Looking over his discography, there are really “only” six (out of sixteen) albums of his I really like. Those six albums I’d be happy to listen to from start to finish, as they offer plenty of variety while keeping the quality level pretty consistent throughout. All the other albums are a bit of a mixed bag for me, with occasional gems – like the ones mentioned above from his newer releases. But maybe it’s okay to call yourself a fan of an artist even though you don’t enjoy all, or even the majority, of that artist’s output.
As a special post-jul julebonus, here are three excellent tracks from a radio broadcast concert The Extra Glenns did back in 2002. This includes “Infidelity”, one of my personal favourites by the band; “All Frosting”, a great but as of yet unreleased song; and “How I Left The Ministry”, which was included on Undercard but I much prefer this live version.