Thursday, September 9, 2010

Goin' Solo

It’s a pretty obvious, even expected move when the lead singer for a band decides to take the stage on his and/or her own. Often that signals the end of the group, but sometimes it’s just a chance to do a little something different and showcase a few tunes that don’t quite fit the style of the band they front. Unfortunately these solo efforts can be watered down versions of the groups that made the singer (in)famous, but sometimes you get a nice slice of a different perspective from a gifted songwriter, and the leaders of some of my favorite bands have put out some of their best work as solo artists, including but not limited to Neil Halstead, Rhett Miller and I’m looking forward to Fran Healy’s first solo excursion next month. FYI, these are also, in my opinion, slots 1, 2 and 3 of the greatest songwriters of my generation.

But I’m not here to talk lead singers going solo. Instead, I want to nod to a few solo albums from the sidemen of various groups, so often overlooked when What’s-His-Name is so dreamy and who more often than not turn out something completely different from the bands they normally support.

Isobel Campbell (Belle & Sebastian) – Though she now has proper solo albums under her own name, Belle & Sebastian alum Isobel Campbell’s first forays on her own were under the moniker of the Gentle Waves, and this name pretty much describes the music therein. The release I’m most familiar with is Swansong for You, a collection of ten modest ditties reminiscent of her more obvious contributions on the B&S album Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant. The sound, like that of her band’s, is retro, focusing mainly on other veins of low key 60s pop – like chamber and bubblegum – with washes of strings and flutes over lightly strummed guitars, whisper soft vocals and the occasional harpsichord (the latter giving an almost medieval flourish to a couple of tracks). One or two mid to up tempo numbers are thrown in here and there to accent an overall feeling of ease and relaxation, but even then you won’t get too worked up, because the Gentle Waves are just that, a soothing backdrop for a calm setting with a book or a lover or a half forgotten memory.

Mitchell Froom (Producer – Crowded House, Suzanne Vega, Los Lobos, etc) – Most noted as a producer, Mitchell Froom started out as a keyboardist before making the transition behind the other board (ha, ha). One of his musical endeavors, as a performer, is Dopamine from 1998, a sample of which I heard awhile back as a DFD song of the day and knew I had to get my hands on the rest of the album. Dopamine is a mixed bag of part cabaret, part 60s film score, part avant-garde, part (other) world music; a series of mini soundtracks to films your mama doesn’t want you watching. Imagine a richer, fuller Angelo Badalamenti or a sexier, less sinister Tom Waits. This is a slinky carnival of weird, macabre fun, one moment in your face and the next backed off in a corner (and sometimes both within the same song), but always satisfying in its somewhat unsettling way. If you’re interested in either of the aforementioned artists, or off kilter movie soundtracks, or just interesting music, Dopamine is right up your back alley.

John Frusciante (Red Hot Chili Peppers) – After leaving the Red Hot Chili Peppers for a few years of bottoming out and self-discovery in the 90s, John Frusciante began releasing a slew of solo albums that were initially intended to bring in money for drugs. And yet despite that less than aesthetically pleasing motive, his musical output remained artistically interesting if not downright outstanding. My favorite of these, Shadows Collide with People, came out after he got his life back on track and rejoined the Peppers. Of everything I’ve heard from his non-RHCP output (and there’s a ton), Shadows… is the most pop accessible, but this in no way diminishes the quality of these alterno-driven rockers and ballads. Present throughout are his ever-emotive melodies both vocally and via his highly underrated guitar work, especially on tracks like Carvel, Regret and the absolutely fantastic Omission. For anyone exploring outside this album (‘cos I know you’ll all run out and get a copy at my word), Shadows… will not prepare folks for the lo-fi folk freak out of his debut, Niandra Lades or Usually Just a T-Shirt, and like-minded material, but less “studio slick” releases like To Record Only Water for Ten Days and his latest effort, the majestic The Empyrean, hold enough ties to identify a distinct and highly enjoyable John Frusciante sound…which I will point out is all over many of the major radio hits for the Peppers in the 21st Century.

Martin L. Gore (Depeche Mode) – As Depeche Mode’s principle songwriter for most of their twelve albums, as well as taking lead vocals on several key tracks, this one might be considered a bit of a stretch, especially because while Dave Gahan may be the lead singer the group, Martin L. Gore is the assumed leader for those of us who think we know the what’s up. Dig? ANYWAY… Both of Martin’s solo releases have been cover projects and I’m especially fond of the first one, Counterfeit, as through this release I was introduced to a number of songs, and subsequently their writers, that I may not have been otherwise. The approach is similar, though more minimalistic, to that of any Depeche Mode album, so there’s a certain and obvious familiarity throughout. However, Counterfeit offers a moody, electro vibe that showcases less Martin’s ability to make interesting bloops and bleeps with a keyboard and more a) his sweet, plaintive voice and b) just how amazing these songs are, which in turn gives further dimension to (and therefore appreciation of) Depeche Mode’s influences as well as the band itself.

Murry Hammond (The Old 97s) – As I've stated in a previous post, the Old 97s bassist’s first solo effort might be the best thing to come from the whole of the Lone Star State. This collection is a quiet, brooding reflection on life, sin and salvation from a completely different viewpoint than that of the front man he plays sidekick to, with a set of old school hymns, reminiscent country tunes and mindful originals encapsulating Hammond’s religious beliefs and expectations in a way that is immediately sincere, warm and inviting. Recorded in a church, the sound is both soulful and eerie, conjuring the image of a lone player strumming with hope and longing amongst the shadows of his and the world’s sin. It’s an album for darkened rooms and pensive thoughts, about as far from the toe tappin’, hand clappin’, knee slappin’ swing he helps make so infectious with his fellow Texans in Old 97s, and the end result is satisfying in a completely different way.

Roger O’Donnell (The Cure) – Roger has always been my favorite member of the Cure (who said it has to be Robert?), and when I heard about this solo album coming out back in 2005, I literally did a back flip (in my heart). Basically a project to showcase the Moog synthesizer, everything – from leads to bass to percussion to sweeping noise passes – is created using nothing but that instrument. The results are a series of understated “non-songs” that create an emotional and sonic landscape far from the catchy pop licks he’s most widely known for in the Cure. And though a couple of tracks grasp at recognizable form and "pop" structure with the presence of some very charming female vocals, courtesy of partner Erin Lang, the main focus here is the diverse and interesting world of the Moog. For Cure collectors this will be nothing more than an interesting sidepiece, and at times it does get a bit technical, but those interested experimental, minimalist post rock along the lines of Cluster, Harmonia and the like should definitely take a close listen.

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