Going to be a shorter one this week. I’ve noticed that these columns keep getting longer and longer, and I promise you, that’s not intentional. Quite the opposite, actually, as I’m the kind of person who can only write concisely if I consciously work at it.
So this week, I’m going to try to write only as much as I have to. I’ve even set myself a time limit. We’ll see if I can adequately get my points across in fewer words and fewer minutes. I’ve already spent nearly 100 words telling you all about my plan to write shorter, so we’re not exactly off to a flying start.
But I’ve chosen to write about side projects this week, which should help. By definition, side projects don’t invite the depth of analysis that an artist’s main band does. The understanding is that we’re listening to a detour, a pitstop, and the real journey will continue when we’re done. No matter how interesting the detour is, it just isn’t getting us any further down the path, so the tendency of most critics is to talk about how the side project differs from the main one, pat it on the head and send it away with a wave.
I’m not sure that’s entirely fair. Some side projects are just as worthy as the primary ones. Look at Jack White’s multi-faceted career, for instance. It’s generally accepted that the White Stripes is his “main” band, but the work he’s done in the Raconteurs, and most especially in the Dead Weather, is sometimes more interesting. For White, I’m not sure his non-White Stripes bands are side projects. He treats them like his main ones.
I’m also not really sure if solo albums from members of flourishing bands should count, although it’s easy enough to think of them as sideshows. In many cases, solo albums are just artistic endeavors these artists have to get out of their systems, before they can recommit to their bread-and-butter jobs. Panda Bear makes solo albums, but that doesn’t mean Animal Collective is breaking up.
So Sigur Ros fans shouldn’t worry about the fact that singer Jon Bor Birgisson, better known as Jonsi, has just struck out on his own with a delightful little record called Go. You shouldn’t even be concerned that this comes one year after Jonsi’s collaborative effort with partner Alex Somers, called Riceboy Sleeps. Sigur Ros isn’t splitting apart. Most likely.
But hey, remember when Iceland’s best band was a complete mystery? Men and women with strange names and an even stranger sound, who sung in a made-up language and were never photographed or pictured in their album art? Remember when people thought the music was transmitted to Earth by aliens, so otherworldly was the sound? Well, the band has slowly and deliberately dismantled that image, and Go is absolutely the work of a demystified artist.
It’s also, believe it or not, boatloads of fun.
Go is 40 minutes of sprightly pop. Even though the trappings are similar to Sigur Ros – the bizarre, higher-than-high processed vocals, the shimmering synth beds, the instruments that don’t really sound like Earth instruments – the overall effect is completely different. These songs move. They jump around the room with unbridled joy. Led by boom-boom-boom drums, the first couple of tracks play like happy-pill anthems. It’s so sky-high enjoyable that I don’t even miss the inscrutability.
Oh, and one other thing. On the majority of these songs, Jonsi sings in English. On opener “Go Do,” he begins by urging the listener to “go sing too loud, make your voice break, sing it out” and ends by repeating “We should always know that we can do anything.” “Animal Arithmetic” is even more effervescent: “Everytime, everyone, everything’s full of life, everyday, everywhere, people are so alive…” It’s jarring at first to hear this voice sing words I understand, but it’s easy to get used to.
Even the more ethereal pieces, like “Tornado” and closer “Hengilas,” are in major keys, and strike triumphant notes. This is the most life-loving record Jonsi’s ever made, and the sound of it is enormous, massive, full to bursting. (Nico Mulhy’s string arrangements certainly don’t hurt.) Side project or no, this record is simply fantastic, and if it marks the start of Jonsi’s solo career, then I’ll try not to mourn Sigur Ros too much. This album has everything I like about them, plus a big, wide heart.
Jonsi may have made this album on his own, but there’s a lot of his main band here. Still, there are cases in which the re-branding of a side project simply makes sense, cases where the sound of the new band bears virtually no resemblance to the sound of the one from which it sprung. That, of course, makes the new band so much harder to market – labels want to tout the famous members of this unknown entity, but they don’t want to set the expectation of a similar sound.
That’s the story of Black Prairie, a new quintet that contains three members of the Decemberists: accordionist and singer Jenny Conlee, dobro player Chris Funk, and bassist Nate Query. Despite this pedigree, their debut album Feast of the Hunters’ Moon contains no jaunty folk songs, no epic ballads, and no Jethro Tull influence at all.
Instead, Black Prairie (which also includes guitarist Jon Neufeld and violinist Annalisa Tornfelt) has concocted a mostly-instrumental trip through a dozen forms of traditional music. There’s a strong bluegrass undercurrent to the whole thing, but we get several other flavors mixed in as well, like blues, tango and ballet. The bouquet of instruments is very interesting throughout – you don’t expect the sinister accordion on “Ostinato Del Caminito,” for example, and Tornfelt’s violin proves surprisingly versatile. The album is a bit of a wild ride, and musically, it reminds me of some of The Cat Mary’s work.
Still, my favorites here are the ones on which Conlee sings. The country weeper “Crooked Little Heart” is a standout, as is the traditional “Red Rocking Chair,” both sounding a bit like Cowboy Junkies tracks. I enjoyed Feast of the Hunters’ Moon, but I’m not sure I’d have bought this without the three Decemberists on board. And now that I’ve heard it, it will probably be relegated to Side Project Hell on my CD shelves. If you like instrumental bluegrass with hints of jazz and other musics, check it out. If you’re looking for more songs like “O Valencia,” you may want to give this one a pass.
So we’ve got side projects that sound a lot like the artists’ main bands, and those that sound nothing like them. My favorites, naturally, lie somewhere in the middle, ones on which you can hear the reasons you bought it in the first place, but can understand completely why a separate identity was needed. Does that make a lick of sense?
If you want a good example of what I’m talking about, pick up Amanda Palmer’s crazy new thing, Evelyn Evelyn.
Palmer, as you probably know, is one half of the Dresden Dolls, a highly theatrical combo inspired as much by German cabaret music as modern punk. Virtually everything Palmer has done has a curtain-going-up feel to it, but Evelyn Evelyn’s self-titled record is her first full-blown rock opera. It’s a collaboration with singer/songwriter Jason Webley, and it tells the story of Evelyn and Evelyn Neville, conjoined twins who work as circus performers. In fact, Evelyn Evelyn actually purports to be the debut from the twins themselves, with Palmer and Webley each voicing an Evelyn.
The story itself is dark and frightening, in that childlike Tim Burton way. The twins are abandoned at an early age, and bear witness to freakish death after freakish death. (These are detailed in creepy monotone narration in a trio of songs titled “Tragic Events.”) Eventually, they get up the courage to write their own songs, and post them to the Internet, thereby finding others who share their sense of alienation.
This is all set to a mix of spooky old movie themes and carnival music, all of it done without winking. Palmer and Webley immerse themselves in their tale, and you can imagine the Evelyns truly recounting the horrors of their lives, and mourning their only real friend, a conjoined-twin pachyderm called (what else?) Elephant Elephant. Yes, there is a song called “You Only Want Me ‘Cause You Want My Sister,” and it’s exactly what you think it is. And yes, the album ends with a mournful cover of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” which is almost the perfect joke.
The oddest thing here, though, is “My Space.” Meant to be the twins’ first single, it is a gaudy ‘80s power ballad, with sickly keyboards and “99 Luftballons”-style vocals. It also features backing vocals from a host of strange bedfellows, including author Neil Gaiman, Andrew W.K., “Weird Al” Yankovic, comedienne Margaret Cho, and Frances Cobain, daughter of Kurt and Courtney. You will either think this is the fullest realization of the album’s themes, or an utterly jarring and wholly inappropriate climax. Not to make a tasteless joke, but I’m of two minds about it.
As a piece of conceptual insanity, Evelyn Evelyn is sort of amazing. It’s the perfect side project: there will likely never be another one, so Palmer and Webley felt liberated, and went for broke. If you like the more theatrical aspects of the Dresden Dolls, and you have a taste for the macabre, I’d highly recommend picking this up. For me, it does what it should do – it shows me another side of an artist I admire (Palmer), and introduces me to one I will now seek out (Webley). It also freaks me out a little, but I think that’s intentional.
In the final analysis, you don’t really need any of these records. Side projects are just that – off to the side, adding context and color. But even that can be tremendous fun, and can allow you to see familiar artists in new lights. Whether they do anything else, these three albums certainly do that, and from that standpoint, they’re worthwhile and worthy.
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You know the drill by now. Here’s the next installment in my Top 20 of the 2000s:
#7. Keane, Under the Iron Sea (2006).
There were probably 500 British piano-pop bands to emerge in the last decade, and of all of them I heard, Keane is my favorite. And of their three albums, this is the best. Does that make it my favorite Brit-pop album of the decade? I think it does.
Keane’s been ahead of the pack since their 2004 debut, Hopes and Fears. They play clear-eyed, soaring pop music, earnest and true, and they have no use for irony or “cool” detachment. On their first two albums, they did it without guitars – Tim Rice-Oxley’s pianos and synthesizers were the only instruments, apart from Richard Hughes’ drums. You’d think that would lead to an empty sound, but you’d be wrong. Keane music is full and rich and powerful.
And they have a secret weapon in singer Tom Chaplin, who possesses one of the finest, strongest, most flexible voices you’ll ever hear. Chaplin live is just as amazing as Chaplin on record, and Chaplin on record blows me away. His voice may not have a unique character, which has led some to call it bland, but it’s a powerful instrument, and Chaplin can wield it like nobody’s business.
Under the Iron Sea is Keane’s Difficult Second Album, made in the wake of the worldwide success of Hopes and Fears. It is deeper and darker. It was still built using nothing but drums, pianos and synthesizers, but often, this album feels enormous, waves of sound cascading atop one another until the whole thing threatens to topple over. It remains grounded, however, by the extraordinary melodies. Every one of these songs is carefully built, and spins off into unexpected directions.
But beyond the fact that these melodies are impossibly infectious, and that “Crystal Ball” is one of the best pop songs of the decade, and that the first time you hear “Is It Any Wonder” and are told that there are no guitars on it your jaw will hit the floor, and that “Hamburg Song” is four minutes and 37 seconds of graceful, fragile beauty, this album rises above the competition because it is so deeply felt. It is, essentially, the modern Britpop Rumours, its darkest lyrics written as angry letters from Rice-Oxley to Chaplin. That Chaplin sings these songs only adds to the drama.
Keane nearly broke up while making Under the Iron Sea, Chaplin struggling with substance abuse all the while, and the band members channeled their pain and anger at each other into the songs. Look at “Is It Any Wonder,” still one of the most aggressive Keane tracks: “Now I think I was wrong, and you were laughing along, and now I look a fool for thinking you were on my side…” There is this, from “The Frog Prince”: “You’ve wandered so far from the person you are…” Or this, from “Leaving So Soon”: “Don’t look back, if I’m a weight around your neck, ‘cause if you don’t need me, I don’t need you.”
And there is “Hamburg Song,” which seems from the outside to be a declaration of romantic love, but is really a heartfelt attempt to make a friend see sense. “I give much more than I’d ever ask for,” Rice-Oxley writes, before delivering the clincher: “I want to be the place you call home.” Under the Iron Sea is about three people who have known each other their whole lives, and now find themselves growing apart. It is about its own creation, and about its authors’ near-dissolution. And when it ends, with the glorious “The Frog Prince” (and bonus track “Let It Slide”), it feels like redemption earned.
If Under the Iron Sea had been the last Keane album, it would have been an extraordinary way to go out. As it is, they’ve gone on to make an album (2008’s Perfect Symmetry) and an EP (Night Train, out in May) of bizarre, envelope-stretching music, incorporating an ‘80s sensibility and a Somalian rapper named K’Naan. (Oh, and guitars.) They’re still one of the best bands in the world, and they’re still innovating, finding new ways to change and redefine what they do.
But Under the Iron Sea remains their best work, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it always does. There’s something monolithic about this record, something that elevates it beyond a collection of amazing pop songs. Some combination of the sound, unlike anything I’ve ever heard, and the emotion, so thick and dark you can feel it. Under the Iron Sea is a truly great record from one of the few truly great new bands of the 2000s. And I can’t wait to hear where they go next.
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Remember, Saturday is Record Store Day. Support your local music store. Next week, I’ll be delving into piano-pop heaven with Aqualung and Rufus Wainwright. And I kept it under 3,000 words this week. Go me! Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.