The recent Ben Folds Five reunion has me thinking about solo albums.
I know, that doesn’t seem to make sense, but bear with me. The Five originally broke up in 2000, and Ben Folds went on to a (mostly) successful solo career. The primary criticism I heard of his solo material, at least at first, was that it sounded exactly the same as his work with the Five. Well, of course it did, was my response. Ben hasn’t thoroughly changed his songwriting style just because he struck out on his own.
But while the style remained the same, there was a difference in the sound. It was subtle, and if you weren’t a fan, you probably wouldn’t have noticed. After playing all of the instruments himself on Rockin’ the Suburbs, Ben put together a new Five, with bassist Jared Reynolds and drummer Lindsay Jamieson, for Songs for Silverman. But here’s the important thing: they weren’t a band, not the way the Five was. They were session players. It was Ben’s name on the cover, and he called all the shots.
The difference wasn’t immediately obvious, but with the release last month of the real Five’s reunion album, The Sound of the Life of the Mind, it’s become crystal clear. Folds has an interplay with Robert Sledge and Darren Jessee that he doesn’t have with his hired session players, and you can hear that democracy in action all over the new album. I love Ben Folds on his own, but there’s something about the band that he has never been able to replicate.
Of course, he’s been able to do things as a solo artist that the band format wouldn’t have allowed, like his album of a cappella tributes, or his recent collaboration with Nick Hornby. That’s what solo albums are for, in general – to give the artist a chance to try something different, to light out in another direction, even if the trip is short and circular.
So it’s a little frustrating, then, to hear the first solo album from another Ben, Benjamin Gibbard, and realize that it’s basically a very minor Death Cab for Cutie record. There’s nothing here Gibbard couldn’t have tried with his main band, no moment where he veers sharply away from expectations. Former Lives was recorded in bits over the past eight years, and it would have a slapped-together quality to it if all of these songs didn’t sound essentially the same.
Gibbard’s high, even tenor is one of the most distinctive voices in modern music, and the control he has over it is remarkable. That voice can make even simplest wisp of a song worth hearing, and he relies on it more than ever on Former Lives. These songs barely exist, they’re so slight and wistful. They jangle in all the right ways, but they’re over before they really do anything. It’s hard for me to believe that the same guy who wrote the emotional powerhouses that made up Death Cab’s Transatlanticism and Plans could find anything interesting in the non-story of “Dream Song,” but here it is in the leadoff position of Gibbard’s record.
“Dream Song” is about a guy who has bad dreams. That’s it. “He counts the hours creeping by, his thoughts racing, eyes stuck open wide, tossing and turning through the night,” Gibbard sings over the most generic acoustic indie-pop backing you could imagine. Aimee Mann tries to liven up “Bigger Than Love,” but its melody just sits there, weighed down by too much repetition. The sound is right – the guitars chime, the pianos ring out, the drums propel everything forward, and if not for the song itself, this could be a fine Death Cab track. It’s just too simple and cute to leave any kind of impact.
It’s worth noting that Gibbard played virtually every instrument on Former Lives, which could explain the timid nature of these tunes. Tellingly, the best songs here are the ones with guest players adding color and depth. “Something’s Rattling (Cowpoke)” brings in Trio Elias for a mariachi flavor. “Broken Yolk in Western Sky” is a southern-inflected story about a man who dives out of his lover’s car, watching as she drives away. “And in the gravel and scattered trash, I faded into your past,” Gibbard sings, while Mark Spencer lets loose with the pedal steel.
The best track Gibbard manages on his own is “Duncan, Where Have You Gone,” with its deliberate pianos, layered vocals and stabbing guitar solos. But even that song goes nowhere, repeating its signature motif again and again. I want to like this, because Gibbard’s voice remains an undimmed joy. But Former Lives is agonizingly mediocre, and the fact that it sounds exactly like a depressingly bad Death Cab album only adds to the disappointment. Gibbard didn’t use his solo bow to set himself apart. This record finds him doing what he’s always done, only doing it worse.
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Trey Anastasio, on the other hand, is a guy who knows what a solo career is for.
Anastasio is known as the singer and guitar player for stripped-down jam band Phish, and in that setting, he is definitely part of an organic whole. On stage especially, Phish is a nimble, epic band, stretching songs to 30 or 40 minutes, heading off on tangents led by nothing more than the telepathy between the four members. With Phish, Anastasio has firmly established himself as a guitar master, peeling off one legendary, lengthy solo after another, and deftly executing tricky numbers like “The Divided Sky” and “Stash.”
But if you’re looking for that jam band mentality from Anastasio’s solo records, you’ll be disappointed. His solo career is chock full of experiments that he simply couldn’t get away with in Phish. He’s made experimental collages alongside glossy pop albums, convened a 10-piece band for instrumental workouts, given us orchestral pieces, and with “Time Turns Elastic,” presented a 30-minute suite for strings, electric guitar and voice. Phish later recorded their own version of “Elastic,” but it’s nowhere near as fascinating as Anastasio’s.
And now he’s done it again with Traveler, his ninth solo effort. About half of this album is fairly typical stuff, Anastasio working with his longtime partner Tom Marshall to deliver breezy little rock and roll tumbles. But the other half is wild and wonderful, some of the most offbeat material Anastasio has yet written, and it sets Traveler a cut above.
Start with the mostly-instrumental “Land of Nod,” with its cartoon horn arrangement and trip-hop drumming. Then move on to the dazzling six-minute epic “Scabbard,” which tips its cap to Frank Zappa, and yet finds space for some lovely acoustic passages. Both of those songs sport terrific string arrangements, and “Scabbard” finds Anastasio working with electronic beats and sounds, like a born master. The final two minutes of the piece devolve into ambient bliss, like a journey finally reaching its peaceful end. And then he leads the band through a winking, wonderful cover of Gorillaz’ “Clint Eastwood.”
Anastasio’s newfound interest in electronics informs this record without overwhelming it. “Architect” is a simple song recorded in a delightfully complex way, with computer beats in the distance supporting fractured acoustic guitar and lush strings. It’s like the sun trying to break through, and it works beautifully. “Valentine” drops another fine string and horn arrangement over a propulsive tune that ranks among his best. Just listen to the final three minutes – Anastasio whips out the electric guitar, but this is no jam, this is a fully arranged playout.
This is all so good that the lesser lights, including the bike-riding anthem “Let Me Lie,” can’t bring Traveler down. The album ends with the title track, a graceful, sunny number that isn’t a million miles outside of Phish’s orbit, but with its strings, organ, chimes and backing vocals, it sounds completely different. That’s what makes Anastasio’s solo work so compelling. He uses solo albums as opportunities, and on Traveler, his restless nature has led him to gold.
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What, then, to say about Jason Lytle, whose solo material is often exactly the same as his work with his former band, Grandaddy?
Even Lytle has called his solo work and Grandaddy’s output interchangeable, and there’s a lot of truth to that. Grandaddy formed in 1992, and eight years later released their defining album, The Sophtware Slump. It was here that the Lytle template emerged – low-budget epics with sweeping melodies buried under layers of old-school keyboards. Their sound is sometimes reminiscent of the Flaming Lips at their most serious, even down to Lytle’s voice, but there’s an element of closet space-rock to Grandaddy that sets them apart, and subsequent albums Sumday and Just Like the Fambly Cat emphasized that element. It’s widescreen, galaxy-spanning music that still sounds made at home.
With Grandaddy on hiatus, it should be no surprise that Lytle has continued to make music on his own, or that the music he makes breaks no new ground. His second solo album, Dept. of Disappearance, could have appeared under the name Grandaddy, and fans would have embraced it just the same. All the touchstones are here – the cheesy-awesome keyboards, the pulsing bass lines, the spacey melodies, Lytle’s pinched yet perfect voice. There really is no difference.
Is this a problem? Isn’t this the same thing I laid into Ben Gibbard for doing? Well, yes and no. With Grandaddy no longer a going concern (except for the odd reunion gig this year), Lytle has no other outlet for these songs. And it’s clear these are the kind of songs he writes. What he’s given us with Dept. of Disappearance isn’t an inferior version of Grandaddy, it essentially is Grandaddy. In some ways, the band name was a lie – it’s always been Lytle’s vision – and in most cases, Lytle’s performances, on just about every instrument.
I mean, just listen to “Last Problem of the Alps,” an absolutely crushing epic chock full of ambient synths and gorgeous pianos (all played by Lytle) that builds to a massive finish. This could have fit perfectly on Sumday without any changes. “Matterhorn” is Grandaddy through and through, from the processed vocals to the sky-high keyboard sounds. The biggest departure is “Somewhere There’s a Someone,” which sounds like Grandaddy playing a Coldplay-style pop ballad. But even that only stands out because of its raw, unaffected emotion.
There’s no one else making music like this. That said, I do find myself wishing that Lytle would shake up his formula now and again. While nothing on Dept. of Disappearance will disappoint Grandaddy fans, nothing will surprise them, either. The oscillating keys and melody of “Willow Wand Willow Wand” are classic Lytle, for better and for worse. And it should shock no one that the album ends with an eight-minute synths-and-piano excursion, this one called “Gimme Click Gimme Grid.” It’s fantastic, beautiful stuff, as usual.
Isn’t it enough just to enjoy Dept. of Disappearance as if it were another new Grandaddy album? Do we need Lytle to dance to a different tune? With no one else producing this particular brand of beautiful, I’m not sure we do. Perhaps, if this album showed even the slightest hint that Lytle was running out of steam, I’d think differently. But it doesn’t. Dept. of Disappearance is just another lovely piece of work, no matter what name its author chose to release it under. As far as I’m concerned, Lytle can keep making music like this forever, and call it whatever he likes.
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See you in line Tuesday morning.