Darlingside - the world’s coolest band without a drummer - totally floored us with 2016’s Birds Say. The band enjoyed much praise from the mainstream press here in the UK and subsequently picked up a lot of new admirers. Now they’re back with a new record, Extralife, to the delight of one and all here at Red Guitar H.Q. At first glance the record is a little more weird and therefore a little less immediate than its predecessor but the band’s thrust remains the same. Welcome to harmony-driven acoustic bliss with uncommon quirks and unusual weight.
While Darlingside have started to embrace more electronic elements here, the perfectly fused four-part harmonies still define their sound. Opener and title track ‘Extralife’ has nothing more than a shimmery undulating keyboard beneath the ethereal Beach Boys and CSN&Y-inspired vocal which has come to be the band’s trademark. The song’s mysterious lyric hints at a drowned planet where mushroom clouds have “reset the sky”, setting up one of the album’s grand themes: the uncertain, unwritten future. At only two-and-a-bit minutes, ‘Extralife’ feels more like an introduction than a song in its own right: a musical handshake, if you will. ‘Singularity’ continues with the keyboards (as well as the theme) but introduces gentle acoustic and electric guitars and strings for a more recognisably Darlingside sound. Again, the imagery is of a ruined world where “ash clouds sweep the sky” but the melody and sentiment is stirring and somehow uplifting, with echoes of both The Eagles ‘Peaceful Easy Feeling’ and CSN&Y’s ‘Teach Your Children’ (without the cheese of the former or the earnestness of the latter). A plaintive solo trumpet crowns the second half of the song before the lushness of voices and guitar pours forth and drenches us in Darlingside’s particular brand of acoustic loveliness. ‘Futures’ follows and brings with it more of a Simon & Garfunkel bounce and one of my favourite lines: “The future dawning of the day / It’s never here and never goes away”.
The solo horn returns, along with eddying harmonica, for the stunning ‘Hold Your Head Up High’, which is packed with beautifully evocative imagery; it’s sad, sentimental and comforting all at once. I’m almost in danger of getting emotional but I’m quickly distracted by the playful ‘Eschaton’, a track that opens with a spiral of eccentric bleeps, like the soundtrack to a Clangers episode being played by an eight-bit games console. The impossibilities of time and destiny (I told you the themes were grand) are addressed here, and the lyrics are peppered with sideswipes at modern life. In essence, the song is a call to action: the future is in your hands but it’s down to you to shape it.
The hippy flute, jazz clarinet and unusual rubato of ‘Old Friend’ may be a bit too odd for some, but it’s a welcome change of tone before the straighter, simpler ‘Lindisfarne’ allows us to bathe in glistening, strummed guitar and those glorious, dreamy, sixties harmonies once again.
Tick-tocking handclaps and solo acoustic guitar form the backdrop to the vocal showboating of the surreal ‘The Rabbit & the Pointed Gun’, which sounds as if The Blenders have bumped into Bon Iver and decided to jam. In and out in just over a minute, this will register either as genius or superfluous depending on your mood, as will (the even shorter) ‘Rita Hayworth’. These two vignettes are the bread that is filled with the more substantial and satisfying ‘Indian Orchard Road’ which features a foregrounded solo vocal, a hard-to-sing (yet catchy) chorus and plenty of percussive, chugging violin.
‘Orion’ opens with pizzicato strings, banjo and more vocal impressiveness before a soft, repeated brass pattern spins the track out to its conclusion. There are yet more nuggets of lyrical wit “The beach is just a line in the sand / The tide is in the palm of your hand” before the fizzing energy and distorted noises of the album’s closer is upon us. ‘The Best of the Best of Times’ is a galloping stream-of-consciousness effects pedal-fest that again concerns itself with where humankind is headed. There aren’t answers of course, but the questions posed here (and throughout the whole record) aren’t asked out of naivety, they are the genuine concerns of a generation who will inherit a world that is changing fast and seemingly beyond our control. This is no doubt one reason why the band seem to be connecting so well with new listeners on both sides of the Atlantic.
Incredibly, Darlingside have managed to follow the virtually flawless Birds Say with a record that retains all the stylistic charm of its precursor while taking several steps forward. Conceptually, Extralife is more adventurous and sonically it is less conservative but it is every bit as much Darlingside. The class, character and confidence of the musicianship and the deftness for lyrical intrigue combine to give Darlingside a rare and genuine charm. They remain a band that is impossible to pin down or pigeon-hole; there really is no-one like them. If you want a little extra, get them in your life.
Review by Rich Barnard.