In Brief: I’m pretty fascinated by Darlingside’s ability to bring together old-timey vocal harmonies, modest folk instrumentation, a willingness to experiment with instruments and effects uncommon to the genre, and a touch of sci-fi and speculative fiction that helps to set their lyrics apart from the norm. At times it’s like hearing what people from decades past might have anticipated folk music would sound like in in a future existence parallel to our own.
I have a long history of falling in love with bands during road trips. There are certain musicians whose work seems best suited for the open road, and even if I had first listened to them through a par of headphones at home or in my office, sometimes an album will really “click” with me during a long drive, and the memory formed by that experience will cause me to fondly remember the trip whenever I hear that record in the future. My history with the Boston-based indie folk band Darlingside is unique, though, in that I first heard their music during a road trip. Usually I’m the one with the encyclopedic music library who hogs most of the airtime during a family trip, but my wife had taken it upon herself to come up with some personalized Spotify playlists suited to individual members of our small family during a trip from L.A. to San Francisco and back last fall, our first trip of any significant length with our three-year-old daughter. Unsurprisingly, a lot of children’s songs and playful, childlike songs by grown-up artists made their way onto the kid-friendly lists, but I found it especially thoughtful that the playlist she made for me was not only seeded by bands she knew I loved such as Of Monsters and Men, The Last Bison, and Nickel Creek, but that she had branched out and discovered some great indie bands I’d never heard of that she figured would be up my alley, with Darlingside being one of her most notable discoveries. Really taking that song in for the first time as we sped down Highway 101, I was taken aback by the compelling four-part harmonies, the steady build of the guitars and drums, the unexpected accent given to it by the synthesizers, and the overall theme of awe it expressed for a beautiful world that was in the process of ending. It’s rare that I give high praise to a song that is brand new to me from a band I know nothing about, but I unabashedly blurted out “I love this” before the song had even concluded. It may have cost her nothing, because I’m the one who pays for the Spotify account we share, but I can honesty say it was one of the most thoughtful gifts she’s ever given me in nearly fifteen years of marriage. Despite being in the middle of a marathon year-long listening session where I was trying to cram in both all of my favorite records from the entire last decade and catch up on past discographies of band’s I’d gotten into that had been active earlier in the decade, I decided when I got home that I had to make some time to do a deep dive on Darlingside’s discography before 2019 was out. I definitely haven’t regretted it.
Darlingside has been around since the late 2000s, having met at Williams College in a part of Massachusetts so far from Boston that it may as well be in Vermont. Their recorded output goes all the way back to their first EP in 2010, and over the course of three EPs and three studio albums, their sound has blossomed from smartly written but otherwise typical college indie rock into the blend of baroque pop and folk revivalism they offer up their own unique twist on today. It took the departure of their initial lead singer and an apparent decision not to elevate any other member to that role for this to happen (though it appears that lead guitar/banjo player Don Mitchell and mandolinist/violinist Auyon Mukharji are credited for the lion’s share of the songwriting). The group likely wouldn’t be considered bluegrass by most fans of the genre, even though they do employ such instruments as the banjo, mandolin and cello, but they play in a bluegrass-esque formation, with all four members crowded around a lone microphone with their instruments and voices. 2018’s Extralife seems to be the first studio recording of theirs where that tendency is fully on display – there are a lot of weird things happening on this album that sometimes involve synths or distortion pedals, and yet it never dilutes the folk sound in ways that make it more middle-of-the-road or radio-friendly (their melodies really don’t need the help being catchy, but their instrumentation and production doesn’t really fit any conventional radio format). It’s weird when it wants to be weird, and at other times more modest and traditional. Think of some of the more cerebral and less joke-y moments on a Barenaked Ladies album, cross that with a bit of Sufjan Stevens and a dash of Chatham County Line, and you’re starting to get the picture.
What’s interesting about Extralife is that, while the band seems to have evolved beyond their initial college rock sound, a lot of the lyrical musings heard on this album sound like the kind of things I’d have spent hours sitting around and philosophizing about in college. (I was sober the entire time, I swear.) What is the purpose of life, and how can we know when we’ve lived beyond its intended duration? What sorts of mementos will humankind leave for other civilizations to discover if God-forbid, we manage to wipe out ourselves along with all the other life on this planet? Are time travel and parallel universes real? Is the future fixed, or is it malleable? Can we be aware enough as a species to recognize cultural paradigm shifts as they are happening, not just in retrospect? Of course, not all of this album is that weighty – some songs appear to be about the simple joy of visiting a beautiful place or catching up with a longtime friend. But there’s a such a zeal for life and knowledge, such a need to satiate curiosity within each of these songs, that even when they describe tragic outcomes, I still find great joy in listening to them.
If there’s one drawback to Extralife, it’s that the band’s sense of sonic adventure and their more fantastical lyrical offerings seem to settle into a lull somewhere around 2/3 of the way through. A few rather short songs in the back half seem like aborted ideas that could have built to something more profound, making that section of the record seem a bit disjointed. So while it’s not a particularly long album, with 12 tracks in total and only nine or ten of them being full-fledged songs, it has still taken quite a few listens to keep my attention from wandering in the lead-up the finale. It ends on a pretty strong note, though – but if I’m being honest, most of the true highlights are piled up right at the beginning. That seems to have been a pattern for Darlingside on all three albums thus far – you’ll find plenty of profoundly written songs on 2012’s Pilot Machines and 2015’s Birds Say, but after a while one low-key song after another will pile up and unless you’re really a “lyrics first” sort of listener, you’re likely to zone out a bit. This is why I actually think the group’s 2016 EP Whippoorwill is their most consistent release thus far (it nabbed a spot on my list of favorite non-albums of the 2010s). Still, Extralife is a great starting point if you’re like me from four months ago and you’ve never heard of the band. There’s definitely a reason I’ve still been listening to it, even after my exhaustive binge intended to unearth all the great records I missed out on in the 2010s has come to an end, and why I felt compelled to do a more in-depth review of it. The delightful ideas it presents on most of its tracks are certainly more than enough to overcome the few dull or frustrating spots.
Oh, and just in case you’re wondering about the band name – it was inspired by a creative writing class the band members took in college in which they were exhorted to “kill their darlings”. Meaning, if a character or idea becomes so precious to you that it threatens to overtake the entire work, take the risk of killing it off and seeing what happens. So really it should be spelled “Darlingcide”, with a “c” as in “homicide” or “suicide”. But they thought the “s” looked better – and besides, the universe already has groups like The Pharcyde and Brokencyde using “cy” where they clearly meant “si” – so kudos to Darlingside for trying in their own small way to restore some balance.
The title track is rather brief, at just two and a half minutes, with restrained synths (!), a bit of acoustic guitar strumming, and the group’s signature close harmonies front and center. They slowly and somewhat mournfully sing of a nuclear holocaust that is enveloping the earth, and the discovery of a “new level” deep underground – apparently some sort of a bunker that would be the only viable means of survival for any human life left on earth. While the subject matter is quite dark, it’s interesting to me that there’s a tinge of wonder in the four men’s voices as they watch these events unfold, especially since they seem to refer to life as a game in which they’ve already survived much longer than expected. Any life beyond this point is seen as “extra”, meaning they’re already in the bonus round at this point. It’s an interesting spin to put on the otherwise grim reality of one’s impending doom.
This was the beautiful song that started it all for me. The synthetic opening is a bit of a misdirect, but as the acoustic instrumentation picks up, building from the more bluegrassy opening notes plucked out on the acoustic guitar, mandolin, banjo, and cello to more of a driving indie rock finish (with a lovely little trumpet interlude showing up at one point), it’s easy to feel a false sense of security as the glorious vocal harmonies sing of shooting stars and taking pictures and finding beauty in the world around them. Except… wait? What’s this about the shooting star shooting you down? Holy hell, this song is about either nuclear war or the sun going supernova and enveloping the earth, with our protagonist apparently acting as a journalist who has taken it upon himself to photograph cities and roads and other forms of human infrastructure for the sake of whoever might stumble upon our lost civilization in the future, since there will likely be few traces of it left for anyone to see. How they managed to wring such a gorgeous performance out of such bleak subject matter is beyond me. It’s a tricky thing to accomplish in any genre of music, and thus this song has pretty much instantly been catapulted into the upper echelons of my list of personal favorites from the last few years.
The future starts to look more hopeful as the guitar strumming picks up in this song, with its brisk pace and its unexpected harmonic turns in the chorus making it easily one of the album’s most memorable singles. The band is still concerned with the Earth’s future here, and whether it will be livable for common folks like you and I; a radio transmission from a future “Mrs. President” seems to suggest that it will be if we act now. The song doesn’t necessarily get hung up on the details of what actions to take now (though the animated music video has some suggestions, since it tells the story of a time traveler who keeps trying to go back and fix things for an ancient civilization, only to return to his own time and find that every change he makes has a new set of unintended consequences), but it very clearly wants us to hold out hope that our time hasn’t run out yet, what with the chorus continually urging us “It’s not ever too, it’s not ever too late.” I love that its hook communicates such a simple idea, while they’re not afraid to drop heavy vocabulary such as “From deep within the Thermoscene/Bikini snow burns like acetylene” on us in the verses. It’s another brilliantly written and breathtakingly performed piece of music, right down to the banjo outro that gets tacked on at the end.
4. Hold Your Head Up High
While this song takes on a more reserved tone typical of the latter half of the album, it’s got a strong, mantra-like refrain, and a compelling stiff-upper-lip sort of mentality to it that makes it a clear standout. Again, the vocals are mostly sung in unison, allowing their mellow harmonies to envelop the listener. The instruments are plucked more than strummed here, giving the song a sense of reverence, and when the trumpet comes in, I can almost picture the band members standing at attention, like Boy Scouts being taught by a wise old man to maintain their composure even in the most challenging of situations. That’s really what the song seems to be about – taking simple advice from a long-dead mentor or father figure to heart, even when times are bleak and few signs of life are visible. This song is informed by the questions of whether our Earth will one day become barely habitable that were presented in the previous songs, without specifically needing to be about that topic. There’s a hint of it when the song suggests that new life is looming underground, waiting to break through the surface when the time is right. But this could just as easily be taken as a metaphor about how seeds get buried and then emerge as plants or trees. While this one isn’t as immediate as the two songs before it, it’s another winner in my book, and if you have Spotify, I think it’s worth digging up the Spotify sessions version that the band performed live in studio (especially since its B-side is a surprisingly low-key cover of Muse‘s “Knights of Cydonia” that I really wouldn’t have expected to work in such an out-of-genre context).
This one really threw me off on first listen. Due to some sort of distortion or pedal effect on one or more of the band’s acoustic instruments that seems to bend each note as some sort of metallic reverberation is added to it, the song has an almost cartoonishly whimsical sound, even though the vocals and at least one of the guitars still come through with their usual reserved clarity. (As does the lovely cello interlude in the bridge.) I don’t think the song was necessarily meant to be goofy or humorous, unless there’s a deeply hidden in-joke here that I’m not picking up on. I think the group just stumbled across a weird effect that they found amusing and decided to roll with it. In a roundabout way, they’re singing about our ultimate fate again – the word “eschaton” apparently refers to an occurrence that heralds the end of the world, and it’s interesting that they sing “We are the eschaton” in the chorus, because I haven’t picked up any specific references to suggest that this group is religious, but man, that is a heavily theological word to suddenly drop into a song. I think these guys just love obscure vocabulary words – they also sing “No matter what we’ve been, we are the upshot now”, as if to suggest that being a harbinger of the Earth’s doom also serves some sort of redemptive purpose for the few humans still alive. Let’s not kid ourselves – I’m gonna fall way short on interpretation with a song that is both musically and lyrically as out there as this one. It’s certainly different, and once I got used to the distortion effect, the song became a fun one for me to listen to. But I could see it annoying some genre purists, or really anyone who finds the effect grating, because it’s used throughout most of the song’s four minute length.
6. Old Friend
Like the title track, this one seems like a shorter fragment of a song rather than a fully fleshed-out thought – there are really only three verses with three lines each, but the acoustic finger-picked rhythm of it flows by at such a relaxed pace, like a gently babbling brook that only occasionally hits a bend where its rhythm is forced to change momentarily, and I love the warm atmosphere that the fluttering woodwinds add to this one. It doesn’t seem like we’re being sold short on content just because the band is parceling out its lyrics slowly and carefully. What little is said here is actually quite captivating – someone is reaching out to an old friend they haven’t talked to in a while, perhaps against the backdrop of the sky turning red and weird, apocalyptic events starting to take place, and still thinking of them fondly even though their friendship seems to have ended over a disagreement, which is summed up as the friend saying, “Did I not believe in your heaven?” So perhaps it’s a dispute over religious beliefs, or at least over what they would expect to happen in the afterlife? The image of an oak tree and later a river “bending into the light” is interesting to me as well – this could describe a person passing away and seeing a bright light awaiting them, or it could describe the universe as we know it slowly being sucked into a black hole. I love the way that Darlingside’s lyrics seem to be sketched around concepts from science fiction, science fact, and religious myth in such a way that I can’t always tell where one ends and another begins.
Here’s where I find that I can no longer apply the through-line I’ve been following so far, that this is a concept album about the end of human civilization as we know it. This song seems to be simply about a visit to a lovely far-off place… and an argument with a sad old man who lives there alone and doesn’t want to leave. I find it interesting how the chorus seems to double back on itself: “Always see you through/Me I thought I knew/Always see me through/You I thought I knew.” Depending on how you read that, they’re either trying to see someone through (as in, being there for them no matter what) or realizing that they see through someone (as in, being able to tell they’re putting up a front). The lyrics overall are just sparse enough that they seem open to a variety of interpretations… and honestly, it’s only because of the band Iona that I even know where or what Lindisfarne is (it’s an island off the coast of northern England that played an important role in Celtic history), since the song only references its title once and doesn’t put a lot of effort into setting the scene, aside from passing references to vines and mountains. Despite its “could be about almost anything” nature, I think the performance paints a vivid picture – once again it’s very sparse and soothing, and the subtle shifts in the rhythm and melody seem to change the mood of the song back and forth, as if the weather were fickle and going from cloudy to sunny and back again. This would seem to fit my (admittedly loose) interpretation of the song, where the visitor is happy to be there, but sad or angry that he can’t convince the isolated old man who will likely die there to go back with him.
8. The Rabbit and the Pointed Gun
This is the first of the two really short tracks that I feel kind of interrupt the flow of the album. While I don’t mind a minute-long interlude that showcases a snippet of poetry in principle, the scene being set in this one as well as the way the song is performed both seem to break from Darlingside’s usual. Why I’m suddenly supposed to find significance in the story of a man hunting for a rabbit, pointing his gun at it, but ultimately being scared away by an oncoming storm, is beyond me. The song ends abruptly before it can get to anything resembling a concluding thought. More than that, it bugs me that it’s just a single finger-picked guitar and a lone lead vocal. There are little “doot”s and “boops” coming from the backing vocals, I guess, but they don’t contribute much. That just isn’t what I’m listening to Darlingside for (or at least, not the 2018 incarnation of the band) – I feel like this is the sort of “Let’s throw it in anyway, why the hell not?” sort of exercise I could get from any coffeehouse-friendly college rock band.
9. Indian Orchard Road
Having one of the album’s longest songs (it’s nearly five minutes, and just a second shy of “Futures”) wedged in between its two shortest feels like a real pacing blunder. it’s caused me to be unfairly impatient with this song because of how awkwardly everything flows. In a vacuum, I’ve found that this one has really grown on me. It’s got more of a syncopated rhythm to it, the cello and the overall “baroque” feel are a little more prominent than they are on some of the more guitar or banjo/driven songs, and the band has a lot of fun with alliteration and natural imagery. get a load of this verse: “Shadows that lift off the boom and the buildings/White gravel crab apples black under their buds/Shallow tracks swish back up to the spillway/Steady the silver line up into the sun/Shapes on the lawn/Woods waking on.” Do I necessarily understand what that means? No. But I’m kind of fascinated by how it’s constructed. I do have to say that the chorus, which mostly just repeats the phrase “Indian, Indian, Indian Orchard Road”, seems to emphasize the wrong syllables and come across a bit clunky as a result. Still, I like the vivid image of dirt roads and wooden fences, orange and red leaves, orchards ready to be harvested, and the splendor of a long, peaceful sunset that this song leaves in my mind. Parts of it could stand to be reworked, but at its best it reminds us that the band’s vivid imagination extends to more than just bleak doomsday scenarios.
10. Rita Hayworth
This one’s even shorter than “Rabbit” – a mere 51 seconds. Being short doesn’t make a song bad, of course – I actually think there’s something clever about this poem that is really a collection of short phrases followed by a brief list of famous women from decades past, all intended to contrast the lack of color in everyday life with the special people who shone brightly on TV and movie screens and then (at least in some cases) burned out before their time. But the song seems like it should be pivoting into a bigger and more meaningful statement when instead it abruptly ends on those four names: “Coco Chanel, Rita Hayworth, Mae West, Elizabeth Taylor.” Now look, I hate to suggest that the entire album gets dragged down so much by roughly two minutes of music that feels like an odd fit for the rest of it, but I’ve found that my opinion of an album and how much i want to go back and keep listening to it is greatly influenced not just by what I think of each individual song, but also how it flows from beginning to end, and that’s the one area where Darlingside has come up short as we round the bend toward Extralife‘s final stretch.
I had the weird experience a weeks or so ago of hearing this song in a coffee shop, knowing it was naggingly familiar, slowly realizing it was Darlingside, and then still not being sure which song of theirs it was or which album it came from until I went back over Extralife to refresh my memory. I wouldn’t say that’s this song’s fault – when I listen to it individually, I like the slow build brought on by its gently plucked strings, giving way to the gentle swell of the trumpet later on. The lyrical imagery here is pretty intriguing to, almost to the point where I have to wonder if they had some psychedelic assistance in writing it: “The paint is peeling off of a dream/Pool is draining into the sea/Tomorrow is beginning to take/An equal and an opposite shape/The beach is just a line in the sand/The tide is in the palm of your hand/It’s looking like the start or the end/Either way ahead is around the bend.” Or maybe it’s just their geeky love of concepts from their college physics classes and favorite sci-fi films showing up again. Either way, I’m actually glad that this song has enough of a slow space in it that there’s space for the lyrics to shine. It’s just the problem I mentioned earlier, of the album not flowing so well in its back half, that initially led me to tune out a bit by the time I got here. That did “Orion” no favors, and it’s unfair to an otherwise interesting song.
12. Best of the Best of Times
The album closes on a surprisingly upbeat and optimistic note, letting us know that despite the grim outlook of this album’s opening half, that doesn’t have to be our future, and the best and brightest days of humanity still could be ahead of us. In many ways, this reminds me of “Before Our Time”, the closing track from Jon Foreman‘s The Wonderlands project, where he’s summing up the end of a year and the inevitable passage of time, but determined to make the time he has left count. I get that same vibe from this song, though musically it’s quite different, since once again Darlingside is indulging their desire to experiment and distort their guitars (there may even be some actual electric guitar in this one, though it’s accompanied by the quick strum of an acoustic, as well as the mandolin and banjo). I haven’t talked much about percussion on this album, because a lot of the songs have had either minimal drums or none at all – I think “Singularity” was the only one that used percussion to help build up intensity, and even then it wasn’t really a prominent element of the song. This is the one track that I feel might actually be improved a bit by bringing in some live drums to give it a little extra momentum. There seems to be a programmed drum loop here, which is augmented by some palm-muting on one of the stringed instruments, like some bluegrass bands do as a means of keeping time without playing any notes. It becomes a rather strange stew of sounds when you mix the folksy elements with the programming and distortion, but I like it despite that – I just think it needs a little extra push. What I enjoy most about this song is how the image of being rescued from a terrible fate, and having that new lease on life feel like ringing in the new year with “an Auld Lang Syne”, really struck me just as the end of a difficult year was giving way to the beginning of a promising new decade. They may have released this song in 2018, but the beginning of 2020 was exactly when I needed to let its message sink in.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Hold Your Head Up High $1.50
Old Friend $1
The Rabbit and the Pointed Gun $0
Indian Orchard Road $1
Rita Hayworth $.25
Best of the Best of Times $1.50
Don Mitchell: Acoustic and electric guitar, banjo, vocals
Auyon Mukharji: Mandolin, violin, vocals
Harris Paseltiner: Acoustic guitar, cello, vocals
David Senft: Bass, kick drum, vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: