It’s hard to really think of the Extra Lens (formerly the Extra Glenns) as a side project for Mountain Goats’ mainman John Darnielle and former Nothing Painted Blue singer Franklin Bruno. The two seem to just play together when the time is right. Bruno will guest on Darnielle’s records, or join his touring band, or — when the two are really grooving — get a whole album of material together. So it’s more of one branch on the prolific Darnielle musical tree than anything else.
And Undercard, the first Extra Lens (Glenns) record in 10 years, is a fruitful return for the duo. It doesn’t see Darnielle stretching out, necessarily, but he doesn’t necessarily need to. Instead, his work with Bruno has an open, free quality to it that recalls his boombox recording days. Without a full band, and with Darnielle recording his parts and then leaving the rest to Bruno, there’s a loose feel to these songs that sets them apart from his work with the Mountain Goats, even as they sound right in his wheelhouse.
There’s surely no loss in sharpness for Darnielle’s writing in this free atmosphere, though. In fact, some of these songs match up with his finest material. “Cruiserweights” tells the aching story of a boxer throwing a fight, complete with perfect details that reveal both emotion and character. “Take a couple shots right to the river, then remember what the food was like in prison,/ Stick to the gameplan,” he sings at one point, his breathless voice conveying the pummeling his narrator takes. The similarly hushed “Programmed Cell Death” is equally devastating as an isolated, somnabulent lullaby about an exhausted cast of characters gathering in the dark hours of the morning (“by the Portuguese sardines on aisle five”) at an all-night grocery store.
The album is full of stories like this, attempts at finding grace in being cast off. Priests leave the ministry for women and face the consequences, film shoots go disastrously wrong (on the album’s catchiest track, “Only Existing Footage”), and so on. Darnielle even works in a stark and affecting version of Randy Newman’s “In Germany Before the War,” which has its own pining tone (“I’m looking at the river, but I’m thinking of the sea”) that slides right into the vital desperation of the rest of the record.
For his part, Bruno adds compelling and consistent flourishes to Darnielle’s songs. He tends toward a light touch, with a thin layer of piano here or a distant guitar line there. He occasionally beefs up the guitar, as on the tumbling riff that leads off “How I Left the Ministry.” But for the most part, it’s things like the light raggae chug he lays over “Some Other Way,” or watery chords that ring deep in “Programmed Cell Death” that work best here. Bruno also adds backing vocals from time to time, and his airy delivery casts a nice shadow behind the sharp cut of Darnielle’s vocals.
There are a few songs here — “Adultery,” “How I Left the Ministry,” and “Rockin’ Rockin’ Twilight of the Gods” — that have been unreleased gems in Darnielle’s catalog for years. And while it’s nice to hear them properly recorded with Bruno, they come across as a kind of energy Darnielle has moved past. For a man always looking forward, it seems curious that these songs take a step back, and while they’re certainly not bad, they feel a little out of place with the more subtle precision of his newer compositions.
That caviat aside, though, Undercard is a solid listen all the way through, and proof that Darnielle and Bruno have a chemistry that can last through 10 years of dormancy, and that Darnielle can still surprise with a song, even when we think we know what to expect from him.