Extra Life frontman Charlie Looker set up his band’s merch in neat rows. Shirts on the left, splits and EPs down the middle, recent album Secular Works (2008) on the bottom right. On the top right, he placed a construction-paper score book for the knotty Extra Life composition “I Don’t See It That Way,” a riddle of time signatures and percussive accents, notes and bars handwritten in rigid formation. Looker’s handshake was firm, his steely eyes distant but intent, his hair neatly parted. In manner and appearance, Looker projected German precision.
Looker’s band Extra Life, formed after he departed from the Brooklyn chamber group Zs, thrives on that same precision. Secular Works wound guitar, bass, viola, keyboards and percussion into a totally bizarre corkscrew of convulsive avant-rock and medieval chanson. Pastoral soundscapes were interrupted by tightly scripted, volcanic outbursts of heavy metal dissonance. You’d have to go back to the 14th century French composer Guillaume de Machaut for an antecedent to Looker’s highly melismatic, clearly enunciated vocal lines. Not since Kayo Dot’s debut had an album balanced music conservatory exactitude with the raw barbarism of extreme music quite so engagingly.
Whereas on disc Extra Life’s chamber-music tendencies dissolve into its art-rock aesthetic, the divide felt especially jarring during Extra Life’s live set at the Smell. Nobody seemed to mind that keyboardist Travis Laplante and drummer Nick Podgurski read from sheet music as they played, or that Looker and violinist Caley Monahan-Ward sat in chairs as classical musicians might. If this were a proper chamber concert, the backing vocals would have been audible, and we might have had a chance at making out the strange sounds coming from Laplante’s Electronic Wind Instrument. But the Smell is set up for volume, not delicacy. The oblique metal chords of “I Don’t See It That Way” and an unnamed composition (“loud, long and new,” as Looker described it) crashed and festered; anything subtler got swallowed up by the room’s notoriously boomy acoustics or drowned out by the Tejano music blaring from the Latin dance club next door.
Though the setting was far from ideal, not even the horrid sound could dampen the drama in Extra Life’s performance. There’s a physical sense of dread to their live show that’s not present on Secular Works. The album doesn’t show you how bassist Tony Gedrich lurches back and forth with his eyes closed, or how Looker sings with his face screwed into pained expressions and his limbs contorted into awkward puppet positions. Extra Life took “The Refrain” in thrilling double time, turning its flickering rhythms into frantic machine gun bursts of tambourine and syncopated syllables. “The heart chants blood and makes it plain/ Pumping up what you can’t explain” spat Looker in a peculiar Gregorian melody. He had it exactly right.
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