In essence Undercard by The Extra Lens, the stage name for The Mountain Goats frontman John Darnielle’s collaboration with Franklin Bruno, is a new Mountain Goats album.
Ok, so that’s a little simplistic as it features more electric guitar and is laden with Bruno’s riffs. But at its heart is the vocals and story telling of Darnielle, who is a surefire contender for the US’s greatest living lyricist for this reviewer.
Here we find Darnielle tackling the person who is most like you and I. Not the victim, not the hero of a tale, just the ordinary Joe. For this album the focus is the middle manager, the reluctant fighter on the undercard at a tin pot local boxing event or a father fishing with his son. Just ordinary people.
Some of the tales are tragic, like album standout ‘Cruiserweight.’ Here the hero is an ex-convict fighting to earn an honest wage at a boxing event in Cleveland Ohio in the mid 1980s. “ I hate this town,” he repeats in his head as he takes blow after blow. Darnielle and Franklin got the idea from watching old local fights from the 1980s that have since been converted from VHS to DVD.
Some are just wonderful like ‘Tug on the Line’ about a father and son enjoying each other’s company while fishing. Others are tragic and then wonderful like ‘Rockin Rockin Twilight of the Gods’ charting a broken man’s reaction to hearing that all his investments have been lost. “Every time it rains, it brings pennies from heaven, Every time it rains I’m a rich man,” he says as his life caves in.
The music is pretty good too. ‘Rockin Rockin Twilight of the Gods’ makes good use of jazz chords to add to the false jolity. The Mountain Goats mainstay and Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster joins the pair to add some percussion for ‘Cruiserweights’ and across the album the production is low key, basic, giving Darnielle’s lyrics a chance to shine.
This is an album that will delight Mountain Goats fans and all of us who are pleased that the average guy is finally getting the attention he deserves from a songwriter who is anything but average.
Final word goes to Darnielle and Bruno on the album’s sleeve notes. “There are tragic heroes, and then there are really tragic heroes, and there there are guys who, knowing that they’re never going to get rich or famous, will nevertheless consent to have most of the bones in their faces broken in front of an auditorium full of other guys.”
by Joe Lepper