Wednesday, October 6, 2010

And a pickle on the side...

As mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been messing around with the idea of a side projects spiel since the earliest stages of this blog. Why it’s taken me so long to get around to it is hardly worth delving into (mainly ‘cos I don’t know).

I guess the definition of a side project is pretty self-explanatory, but I’ll set down a few “rules” just to keep me focused and because I’ve got nothing else better to do than discipline myself and waste your time (aka skip to the actual music part)…

1) Said musical side project must occur while any specific member(s) is still with their “day job” band…not on “hiatus,” which we all know is usually just a sneaky way of saying, “We’ve broken up but, just in case we get back together, don’t forget about us, aka lose hope, aka stop buying our records.”

2) Said musical side project should contain elements of any specific member(s)’ “day job” band but also bring in something a little new. (We’ll see how this one works out.)

3) Said musical side project should only have one release…or at least not take aforementioned specific member(s)’ away from aforementioned “day job” band…i.e. only records and/or tours sporadically.

4) Said musical side project should currently be defunct. (I don’t know why, just felt like that should be the case.)

5) Said musical side project is not a “spin off” band, i.e. a newly formed band after a previously existing/established band has broken up (e.g. Slowdive to Mojave 3, Black Tambourine to Velocity Girl, etc) or a new band from an ex member(s) of a previously existing/established band (Throwing Muses to Belly, House of Love to Levitation, etc). I’ll cover this later. Well, maybe, I dunno. Geesh, one entry at a time, kids!

Ok, this is already getting lengthy and I still feel obligated to Greg to keep ‘em short.

Arcadia – So Red the Rose (1985): I’m not the only person to have said this but I did say it before I read it elsewhere…this is the best album Duran Duran never made. In 1985 when the boys from DD took a much-needed break from themselves, they didn’t just sit around on their cool millions and bask in their worldwide awesomeness. No, instead they splintered off into two very distinct groups that both lifted certain elements from the parent band. The most popular of these was the Power Station – with Andy and John – focusing more on a straight up rock sound somewhat reminiscent of Duran Duran’s heavier numbers like Careless Memories or Hold Back the Rain, but much more barebones. Having said that, I never much cared for the Power Station outside of their hits and the song Murderess. But it’s all good, they don’t need my love. The other 3/5 of Duran Duran – Simon, Nick and Roger – formed Arcadia…and from there my love affair with DD truly began. My emotional attachment with their one album, So Red the Rose, runs so deep that it’s difficult to really form an objective opinion, but I will try. Of the two side groups Arcadia is the most like Duran Duran, being that it’s more pop than rock oriented though leans towards a darker, more atmospheric vibe, stretching the brooding strains from songs like Night Boat, The Chauffeur and Tiger Tiger to new levels (and depths) of creativity. Side one is the hits collection, the catchier tunes, but not in the bright, shiny, glamorous, bikini-clad way that had initially shot the boys to superstardom; but a deeper, richer, moodier (and grayer), more intelligent, arguably more melodic and ultimately more satisfying brand of pop. There are layers to songs like Election Day, Goodbye is Forever and Keep Me in the Dark. Yes, on the surface they’re dance-worthy in some macabre back alley club, but Simon’s imagery, always interesting, takes on an intense, more sinister twist and the videos accompanying several of these songs sported a gothic look that, while certainly delivered with a knowing wink, gave a certain sincerity that demanded respect. But more than just a pop band spin off, Arcadia was also in a sense a super group, and the boys used all their clout and favors to pull in some highly regarded musicians (of the time and even today) including Grace Jones, Herbie Hancock, David Gilmour, Andy Mackay and Sting (back before he really blew it). Several of these icons, especially to the boys at the time, are most widely dispersed on side two (though I now own it on CD, I can’t not think of this album from a vinyl perspective), which is easily the more artistically progressive side and the one that pushes So Red the Rose from really great to absolutely fantastic (and I’m really making an effort to understate my true feelings). Things start off quietly enough with the brief instrumental Rose Arcana, but the remaining three tracks showcase an ambition lyrically, musically and emotionally that blows the competing side one off the wax. There’s not just regret in The Promise but heartache, there’s not just passion in El Diablo but longing, and Lady Ice’s confessional hope ends the entire album not in a crush of despair but with a chiming gaze upwards to a breaking ray of light, as if this entire strange dream has been nothing more than that and you can always reach up for the sunrise (ok, bad joke/reference). So Red the Rose is a haunting masterpiece, removing all the MTV fluff to highlight the truly interesting bits about Duran Duran and enhancing them to the point of true art. This album has aged rather well, partially because while it certainly sounds 80s, it simultaneously contains an air of nonconformity, of creating its own set of rules and boundaries and the gooey gloss that can be so detrimental by today’s standards is now a finely honed luster. If you’re a Duran Duran fan, at least early on, of more than the hits, you must own this album – it’s a requirement. And if you’re one of those silly people who can’t get beyond the surface glam of what DD had to offer you should check this album out anyway, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised and I think it will help you discover a new found respect for my beloved Fab Five.

Ok, not sure how I’m gonna follow up that one, but I’ll try.

Electronic – Electronic (1990): While certainly a side project, (well, at least for half the principle members) Electronic was also a super group. Two of the biggest bands of the 80s, in the UK, were New Order and the Smiths, so a few years after the latter’s demise, when Bernard Sumner from NO got together with (the greatest) guitarist (in the world) Johnny Marr, it was a match made in Brit pop (in general, not the genre) heaven. (I’m really going to try and keep these parenthetical side thoughts to a minimum…starting now.) In addition, Electronic also included Neil and Chris from Pet Shop Boys helping out on a few tracks and the end result was…well, everything one would hope for and then some. In the end Electronic had three albums, but the one I’m going to focus on most is their self-titled debut. Overall this album feels most like Bernard’s bag as the electro-dance New Order helped create, complete with heavy beats and synths, dominates most of the tracks. This is in no way a bad thing because Bernard is in top form, delivering vocal melodies and keyboard counter-melodies to keep the heart racing throughout. Johnny is not so much a sideman as and embellisher, putting his signature guitar on most of these numbers (and one would assume keys where guitar is not present). On a few of occasions guitars provide the core basis of the song. Ironically, or not, these tend to be my least favorite of the set, especially the fan favorite and modest hit Get the Message, which to me is a bit of a tedious effort that is obviously good but in such a plodding way that it leans to the mundane side. But that’s about the only negative thing I can say about this album, as every other song is full of emotive moments designed to tug at the heartstrings connected to your tapping toes. Highlights include Tighten Up – a plea to individualism and a more standard rock effort with some excellent guitar work – the lovelorn Getting Away With It – full of pining, longing and broken-hearted imagery – the techno pulse of Gangster – an isolationist’s anthem – the epic keyboard workout Try All You Want – a joyous ode to a casual sex relationship complete with breakdowns and work ups galore – and my personal favorite, Some Distant Memory, which builds itself up from a funky bass and standard trap beat to a broad, even majestic swell of keyboards and one of the most melancholy endings in pop history. I think the key to this album’s success is spontaneity – these are two guys essentially enjoying making music together – and while this is a high tech/profile outing, there’s a certain rawness to these recordings that make even the more glossy numbers feel real and believable, removing the sterile electro-barrier that can often separate a synth band from the listener. Basically, Electronic is a dance pop band with a rock n roll heart, which is where the blending of these two powerhouses, coming from two such separately succinct and era-defining groups, can smooth out certain rough edges that may be found separately (say in a solo project called Boomslang). If they’d stopped here, all would have been right in the world. But they didn’t… The follow up to Electronic’s debut, Raise the Pressure from 1996, was a bit of a letdown. Leaning more towards pop rock than dance (more in line with New Order’s latest effort at the time, Republic), this may have been “more familiar” territory for Johnny Marr but the results are, initially, ho-hum, exchanging the excitement and flair of the first release for a more precise, calculated, even formulaic approach to their music. With time and distance away from the initial disappointment I’ve been able to enjoy this album quite a bit in recent years, and not from a nostalgic aspect but on the music’s own merit. Those great melodies are still there (mainly on the more dance oriented numbers), they’re just (somewhat) fewer and less immediate, and Raise the Pressure is a true sophomore slump while at the same time being a worthwhile album. In 1999 a third (and final?) album, Twisted Tenderness, was released and seemed to jump back to the more impulsive, dance influenced vibe of the debut. I own it but I’ve not really listened to it much, so maybe one day it will get its own proper shout out on these pages, but for now I don’t really have much to say besides “I like it.” So, with Electronic all you really need, especially for fans of New Order and/or dance pop in general, is the debut, which though turning 20 this year, has held up well, not only as a timepiece of sidebar musical history but as an infectious catchy pop album worthy to be remembered for, like, ever.

Isidore- Isidore (2004) When I came up with the side projects idea an obvious choice for me was Jack Frost as this outfit, like Electronic, was another super group of great (and greatly unappreciated) Aussie rockers from the 80s, namely Steve Kilbey from the Church and Grant McLennan from the Go-Betweens. But then something happened, as it often does, to change my mind and instead I found myself focusing on one of Steve Kilbey’s (many) other side deals, the one-off effort Isidore. In this instance he teamed up with Jeffrey Cain of Remy Zero fame (“Somebody saaaaaaaaave me…”). The way I heard it was this…Jeffrey Cain, a longtime fan of the Church, sent SK an instrumental he had written for him as a thank you for all the years of inspiration. Pretty cool. Even cooler is this…Kilbey loved it so much he sent it back with vocals…and Isidore was born, with Cain writing and providing all instrumentations and Kilbey doing the same for all vocals. The results are exactly what you’d expect from any effort involving Steve Kilbey, nothing short of great. As a brief aside I should point out that most things SK is involved with naturally have elements of the Church as he’s the principle songwriter for the band, so his style and feel carries throughout no matter where he goes. So it’s interesting to me how Church-ish Isidore’s lone self-titled album sounds considering Cain provided all the musical input. But then again, the initial idea was a tribute to SK/the Church and so perhaps the end results aren’t too far off. But here’s something even more interesting (to me)…Isidore sounds more like the Church that was yet to come than the Church that had brought these two together in the first place. Dig? A big factor in this is the use of electronics, something SK and Marty Willson-Piper had dabbled with 10 years before as a duo with the Church album Sometimes Anywhere, but as a whole the Church had remained a standard bass/guitar/drums act with synths and the like only present to accent rather than carry a song. If Isidore is anything it’s electronics and keyboard heavy (in a very good way) and many of these songs would sound very much at home on any proper Church album with F/Xed guitar runs replacing most if not all synthetic ivories. Also present, of course, is Kilbey’s warm, earthy croon, never too subdued, never overly excited, delivering just the right pitch and thrust for an optimum experience with those flowing, makes-it-seem-so-easy melodies weaving in and out of the music like a silken thread. Though there are elements of dub and house scattered throughout, Isidore is essentially a dream pop album – textured, lush, exotic and slightly forbidding. Fans of the Church (are there any of you out there any more?) should already own and love this album, receiving exactly what they’d hoped for. Fans of Remy Zero will get a pleasant surprise. Wait, that came out wrong… Fans of Remy Zero will get something other than what they expected and will be happier as a result.

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