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The word “extraordinary” is defined as something beyond, amazing, or incredible. The word “extralife” doesn’t exist. But in the world of Darlingside—another previously non-existent word—it’s all about invention, expansion, and elevating everything into the realm of the extraordinary both conceptually and through musical performance.
The band’s new album Extralife intensifies the journey begun on its critically acclaimed 2015 album Birds Say. On that project, Darlingside’s quartet of bassist Dave Senft, guitarist/banjoist Don Mitchell, violinist/mandolinist Auyon Mukharji, and cellist/guitarist Harris Paseltiner fused assertions (“Go Back”), assumptions (“God Of Loss”), predictions (“The Ancestor”), projections (“Do You Ever Live?”) and reflections (“White Horses”). “We put our four heads together and created this collective consciousness about bits and pieces from our past and how we saw the world based upon reminiscences,” explains Paseltiner about that sojourn. It having been the Massachusetts group’s second full-length outing, Birds Say mastered a musical and lyrical path that led to the more challenging territory explored on Extralife. Mukharji describes the “Extralife” concept as “...a life beyond where we are now, whether that's a brand new thing, a rebirth, or just a new version of ourselves as we move forward.” So by abandoning Birds Say’s nostalgia and its tales of “what once was,” Darlingside created its polar opposite with Extralife, the new album exploring “what is now” and “what might be” simultaneously in the brave new world.
“A lot of the album has to do with the present and the future,” Mukharji reveals, “that future being a completely unknown quantity and the present being a new and bizarre place to be living in. I think we’re grappling with a number of aspects of reality we had not expected.” That reality, surviving a dystopian landscape, constructs the new album, the band killing many of its prior darlings (the name Darlingside being a reference to non-attachment) in the process. Their Birds Say, wide-eyed innocence is now bloodshot for the better. As the title track “Extralife” informs in four-part harmony, “It’s over now / The flag is sunk / The world has flattened out,” it loosely sets the new album’s premise. However, the recording also delivers hope through Beach Boys-inspired vocals that contrast with lyrics such as “The fiery flower beds above / Mushroom clouds reset the sky.” “Eschaton” uses a similar formula, this time immersing its Waterworld imagery in fun, fluid synthesizer runs, concluding with the rally, “No matter what we’ve been / We are the upshot now.” Its axis-flipped, Escher- mimicking lyrics sketch a variation on the End Times that suggests it’s actually preventable. Even the “Taps”-inspired trumpet mourn and harmonica cries of “Hold Your Head Up High” are held at bay by the uplifting, anthemic chorus chants of the song title’s message.
As seen throughout the above, Extralife is not shy about employing metaphysics to prove its flexible theses. Perhaps the most blatant example would be in “Futures.” Despite despondent references to “futureforests in the sea,” “bikini snow,” (a historical nickname for nuclear fallout) and even the Thermocene Epoch, we’re encouraged through time-traveling radio transmissions that “It’s not ever too late,” undeniable when empowered by those powerful four-part harmonies. Even the song’s tiny interpolation of The Beatles’ “I’ve Just Seen A Face”, “Falling, yes I’m
falling, and she keeps calling me back again,” is a reassurance that, yes, as even The Fab Four suggested, we will find our way back. And if doom and gloom is
reversible, perhaps whatever darling is emerging on “Indian Orchard Road” can be killed or contained by the sheer beauty of a Darlingside musical assault.
Although Darlingside’s signature superpower is considered to be their vocal prowess, it perhaps can overwhelm their presentations’ subtleties, both live and in the studio. After all, the mind gravitates to that which is charming, and their harmonies could seduce the rings off Saturn. But Extralife is the first Frankensteining —as the band puts it—by the group’s four equal-status members. Each one now equally contributes to something way bigger than his individual part. Equal contributions of vocals, lyrical altruism and wisdom, and effortless musicianship are what empower today’s Darlingside and animate Extralife’s twelve reality-benders.
As evidenced in their new recordings, these young turks jettison preconceived notions and hardwired life lessons with the grace of choirboys. This time around, there’s no patience for a lengthy, lighthearted song such as Birds Say’s “Harrison Ford” when a cut-to-the-chase commentary on the “American dark horse” using a short but pathos-rich “Rita Hayworth” as its vehicle will suffice. Also, instead of relying purely on its very capable, musical fraternity of core members, they even eliminate their Darlingside darlings by expanding its Americana with surprising instrumentation such as the aforementioned trumpet, plus synthesizers, echo- chambered flutes, and more. Of the gifts and weapons left by these honorary Darlingsidians, Mukharji informs, “It very much feels like a big, communal family that's growing together. That’s a very exciting thing.” And once described as boyishly cryptic, their innocent, poetic lyrics also were felled on the field. On Extralife, lyrics must serve as standalone poetry, cautionary tales, and extended musical backdrops via phonetics with no clear boundaries.
So considering all of the above, what exactly is “Extralife?” “The idea of the ‘extra life' in a video game is another chance or another path, and the ability to continue,” reveals Paseltiner. “We read an article about Mario Brothers and the development of Nintendo in The Economist. With that first track on the album, Auyon had been conducting a lyrics experiment where he was writing from the viewpoint of Mario stuck in a video game. We then ended up taking our songs beyond the confines of that video game experiment, identifying with some of its themes like either feeling stuck in a certain dimension and having a desire to break into the next one or what it means to break beyond the sphere we are stuck in—the present. The album goes through a series of songs that deal with that.”
As “Best Of The Best Of Times” posits, “I wonder whether our days are unnumbered,” if we’re truly heading towards Game Over. Neither Extralife nor its creators have any solutions. On the other hand, “Orion” offers some guidance as to preventing the “what is now” from cementing the “what might be” explored across this brave new album: “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.” Perhaps by moving beyond our preconceptions—going Extralife—we can create an amazing future by steering this world towards something incredible. That all makes up the definition of extraordinary.
For many bands, and especially those who’ve been together for several years, recognizing maturation, progress or palpable evolution is a daunting task. Is it continued creative accomplishment that signals progression? Or perhaps it’s profitable commercial endeavors? The answer is often quite unclear. Six years, two albums and countless gigs after first forming as a band, River Whyless, the North Carolina-bred folk-rock outfit has discovered their evolution is a subtler albeit monumentally important one. Deep in the throes of writing and recording their bold new album, Kindness, A Rebel , the four musicians reached a necessary and collective understanding. Namely: this band is their lifeblood, their family and their love. To that end, with unspoken acceptance, the members of River Whyless, each songwriters in their own right, collectively put aside their respective egos, coalesced around each other’s creative vision, and fully embraced the beauty of their enduring partnership.
“It was a feeling of openness and hope and acceptance,” says singer-violinist Halli Anderson of the multi-week sessions with producer Paul Butler (Devendra Banhart, Michael Kiwanuka) that resulted in some of River Whyless’ most dynamic, genre- bending and heartfelt material yet. Creatives regularly waver between honoring their own creation and rallying around larger ideas for the benefit of the group. But with every member of River Whyless now charting a life outside the band, and also writing on their own, when coming together to record Kindness it was never more crucial they be open and honest with each other.
Despite having never felt more unified in their vision for the future, much as they’ve navigated their freewheeling career to date, River Whyless is choosing to not predict what lies ahead. Allowing their creative union to continue guiding them, they insist, remains their only constant. “It feels like you’re on a journey with your family,” McWalters says of the satisfaction of being in a band like River Whyless. “It’s a beautiful thing.”