When I attempt to contact River City Extension frontman Joseph Michelini, he’s on the road and has to be roused by his manager. I don’t bother to ask whether he’s hung over or just stayed up too late watching Hulu. I imagine being in the throes of your first national tour is exhausting no matter what you’re doing during off hours. Either way, Michelini, the musician (an ageless mystic in hipster wear), struggles with a disconnection from Michelini, the dude (a frog-voiced 21-year-old).
“I have a tendency to be really reckless and, uh, it just `wasn’t` a really healthy time in my life, and we never really smoothed things over,” he says, describing his relationship with a girl who is twice his muse on River City Extension’s latest album, The Unmistakable Man.
In December 2008, Michelini uploaded a YouTube video of himself singing “Waiting in the Airport.” On record, the tune is Unmistakable’s bombastic epic finale, complete with sweeping strings and an explosive final chorus, but he keeps it Dylan on this video, just him and his six-string. He sings a little too loudly and then edits in a phone call from said muse as added baby-making incentive. It’s obvious he recorded the song for her and never intended the video for public consumption. Now it has more than 1,000 views.
“I forgot about that,” he said. “I mean, it didn’t work out, but I was kind of a jerkoff to her. That was one of the more stupid things I did.”
Or was it? That’s the thing with Michelini and River City Extension. Michelini betrays his youth by rambling in interviews and being a little too upfront about past relationships, but then he records Unmistakable. Mastered by Alan Douches (My Morning Jacket, Animal Collective, Sufjan Stevens), the record sounds like a survey of indie rock while still maintaining its own unique sound. Driven by equal parts Americana and punk, Unmistakable is piled with contributions from Michelini’s large backing band: Jenn Fantaccione (cello), Michael Constaney (drums), Nick Cucci (djembe, vocals), James Ramirez (bass), Dan Melius (trumpet), Sam Tacon (vocals), and Pat O’Brien (piano). Michelini plays guitar and piano and sings, and his lyricism is worthy of his inspirations: Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse, Paul Simon, and Billy McCarthy of the now-defunct Pela. When the record fires on all cylinders — as on the blissfully lost “South For The Winter” or on the Rocky Mountain New Wave anthem “Our New Intelligence” — the regrettable YouTube videos and former mistreated lovers don’t matter. His music is too damn deliberate and too fucking good.
Which basically means it’s a perfect time to see New Jersey’s River City Extension. They look and sound like a Neo-Americana Arcade Fire, down to the anthemic songs, non-rock instruments, and dauntless celebratory live performances. But instead of arenas, they’re still playing small clubs, like the Ten Eleven, for less than $10 a ticket.
To achieve stadium level, Michelini puts professionalism above personal life. Things are happening fast for River City Extension, and he wants to be a proper ambassador for the band. He even goes so far as to clear up something posted in a previous interview in Paste — a passage describing how his band fought incessantly before finally learning to work with one another.
“I said that in passing, and it was supposed to be mildly sarcastic,” he said.
He wanted to say that art can be a little too personal, Michelini explained. Sometimes his bandmates don’t want to submit to someone his age. Other times, he’s pissed that the same person is late again for the umpteenth time. But then he remembers that no one in his band is a junkie or alcoholic and he’s especially grateful that they hang on as they ride roughshod to fame.
Of course, in the next breath he’s quick to point out how, for the next record, he has an even more distinct, pronounced vision than he did for The Unmistakable Man. Again, it becomes difficult to separate Michelini the mastermind from Michelini the coming-of-age musician.
“A democracy with a band just doesn’t work,” he said. “But neither does a monarchy. You’ve got to find a happy medium.” •
River City Extension
7pm Sun, Aug 22
The Ten Eleven
1011 Ave. B