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Undercard Review

by K. Ross Hoffman

In boxing, an undercard features preliminary matches between newer, lesser-known fighters. There's a touch of modesty, then, in the title of this second album from the long-running though infrequently active collaboration between two seasoned indie world heavyweights, the Mountain Goats' John Darnielle and Nothing Painted Blue's Franklin Bruno. But it also alludes to the typically lowered expectations attending such side projects -- for performers and audience alike -- which in this case work out quite nicely: while hardly a major work, this is the loosest, spryest album Darnielle's been in involved with in ages. And it is Darnielle, understandably, who'll receive most of the attention here. As was previously, he takes lead vocals on every song and wrote the majority of them, though this time, Bruno (who arranges throughout) also contributes three songs, along with one co-credit. The two are such similar writers -- tenderly witty, richly descriptive but meticulously economical and often elliptical -- that the switch-up is barely detectable, though Bruno's cheerily morbid "How I Left the Ministry" and ironic, suicide-rejecting "Some Other Way" offer a strain of overt black humor that's mostly been absent from Darnielle's recent work. That macabre sensibility crops up elsewhere, too -- possibly in the cryptic fish tale "Tug on the Line"; certainly in the unexpected (but faithful, and perfectly fitting) cover of Randy Newman's "In Germany Before the War," which is given a sparse, creepy, Weimar-esque treatment: a tonal reach that pays off beautifully. But generally speaking, there's no particular unifying element to these songs, as Darnielle turns his typically crystalline pen to topics from filmmaking ("Only Existing Footage") to boxing ("Cruiserweights") to adultery ("Adultery"). That in itself marks something of a departure for him; or rather, a return to a much older way of doing things. Interestingly, this album, taken together with the first full-length by (as they were then called) the Extra Glenns -- 2002's Martial Arts Weekend -- forms a pair of discographical bookends to the Mountain Goats' celebrated stint on 4AD: six albums, all but one with overarching thematic or conceptual frameworks. And though that period's increased production fidelity and instrumental lushness (which were, incidentally, foreshadowed by Weekend) carry over here, there are traces of Darnielle's older, scrappier strumming style on "Rockin' Rockin' Twilight of the Gods" and gleefully ragged opener "Adultery" -- both songs that feel like throwbacks and were indeed written well before the 4AD era. As Darnielle's first release on his new label, Merge, opening a new chapter in his career, Undercard may not be a total knockout, but it's an eminently worthy diversion from (or preface to) the main event.

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