The Extra Lens: Undercard (Merge)

Maybe the best moment on Undercard, the fantastic collaboration between John Darnielle (Mountain Goats) and Franklin Bruno (Nothing Painted Blue), comes halfway into the album.

The song "How I Left the Ministry" balances jangly guitar arpeggios and buoyant atmospherics with Darnielle's droll recounting of an affair. Although Darnielle wryly narrates the immediate remorse following a car crash with his neighbor's wife ("The last thing I saw before falling unconscious / Was your right hand / Tracing a heart on my thigh / And I thought, 'My God, what an infantile gesture'"), the song was actually written by Bruno, suggesting the two are equally adept at capturing the sordidly banal.

The lyrical abilities of Darnielle and Bruno carry the musically slight Undercard. Both men can relay ambiguous, vaguely malicious, infinitely sad stories on par with the late, great Warren Zevon. For instance, Darnielle's floating, airy "Cruiserweights" brilliantly captures a sad-sack boxer whose anger manifests itself in resignation in "Cleveland, Ohio, 1985."

Elsewhere, the lush, aching "Programmed Cell Death" may be the most affective song of the year, describing "dozens of us exiles from the mothership" populating an all-night grocery store on Melrose (in Hollywood). Oddly enough, the duo's cover of "In Germany Before the War" is their biggest misstep.

Nevertheless, from the opener, "Adultery," a ripping, driving tune, to the closing dog-pound ballad, "Dogs of Clinic 17," musically counterbalanced by buzzing guitar, pulsating synthesizer and Darnielle's coldly optimistic lyrics, Undercard scores often and immensely.


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