Last week we talked extensively about solo albums by artists better known for the bands they belong to. This week, we’re going to touch on the other two kinds of solo artists – those working under a band name, and those who have never worked under any name but their own.
We actually brought up the first category last time, and it’s more common than you may think. Though Jason Lytle is putting out music under his own name now, he essentially was his old band Grandaddy, writing and singing all the songs and playing most of the instruments. The same way that Matt Hales is Aqualung, or Jason Martin is Starflyer 59, or Justin Vernon is Bon Iver, or Kevin Barnes is Of Montreal, or Trent Reznor is Nine Inch Nails, or Mark Kozelek is Sun Kil Moon.
Or like Natasha Khan is Bat for Lashes.
Lord knows why she has picked that particular name, but Bat for Lashes is all Khan – she writes all the songs, co-produces, sings, and plays a host of instruments. The marvelous mix of lush sounds she creates and curates is entirely at her direction. She even appears naked on the front cover of her new album, The Haunted Man, holding a similarly-naked man over her shoulders. It’s as if to illustrate the point: this is me, exposed, doing all the work. Get to know this record and you’re getting to know me.
Given that, you may expect something soul-baring and sparse, something, well, haunted. But it should be no surprise to Khan’s fans that she’s used her third album to delve even further into the sonic territory she staked out with her first two. Khan’s 2009 album Two Suns found her plunging headlong into electronic beats, yet maintaining the dreamy Kate Bush influence, and the result was simply amazing. Two Suns is a singular piece of work, a dark and delightful album unlike anything else out there. I’m not sure The Haunted Man is a better effort, but it doubles down on ambition and vision.
This is, no doubt, Khan’s Difficult Third Album. She makes no concessions to those looking for pop singles, or those without the patience necessary to follow her through these tunnels of song. “Moody” is an accurate, yet wholly incomplete description of this music. It unfolds slowly, adding details instead of big moments. Though Khan made waves with the danceable “Sleep Alone” last time out, she has not tried to replicate it. Tempos remain slow and shimmering, and keyboards are used for atmosphere, and rarely for punctuation.
The Haunted Man is often beautiful. Opener “Lilies” begins softly and builds so slowly that you won’t believe the amount of passion Khan bleeds into the climactic line: “Thank god I’m alive, thank god I’m alive…” The slinky “All Your Gold,” which almost sounds like a single, makes great use of its full, rich string section. Meanwhile, the actual single, “Laura,” is the record’s loveliest tune, and it’s stripped back to piano, a subtle horn arrangement, and Khan’s voice. “You’re the train that crashed my heart, you’re the glitter in the dark,” she sings, and while I have no idea what she’s talking about, the song is gorgeous.
But this album is just as often thoroughly, deeply weird. The title track, for example, stutters along on beats made of white noise, Khan singing over lush keyboard beds, before everything moves out of the way and a drum corps marches in, accompanied by a male voice choir. Somehow, this choral canticle integrates perfectly with the rest of the song when it comes charging back in, horn section and all. Similarly, “Horses of the Sun” starts off conventionally, with thumping drums and a propulsive melody, but it stops short for its off-kilter autoharp chorus. Then it gets stranger.
Through this entire record, Khan stays true to her own inimitable vision. I’m not sure who else would write a lovely, synth-burbly tune like “Marilyn,” and then nearly derail it with out-of-nowhere munchkin voices. Straight to the end, the shivering six-minute “Deep Sea Diver,” The Haunted Man commits fully to Khan’s worldview, and it’s both easier to admire and harder to love than Two Suns. I commend Khan for realizing this thing so thoroughly. It may take me some more time to fall for it, but I can already tell the investment will be worth it.
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Of course, I have a million examples of the final type of solo album.
For example, I could talk about Regina Spektor’s new record, What We Saw from the Cheap Seats. It’s very good, perhaps the best distillation of her penchant for both lovely and quirky. Foreboding single “All the Rowboats” is definitely a highlight, but songs like “Firewood” and “Open” are among her prettiest efforts. She manages to both rein herself in and let her freak flag fly on this album, and the results are splendid.
I could talk about Tori Amos, and perhaps I will soon. Her new album Gold Dust consists of re-recordings of older material, backed by an orchestra. And nothing symbolizes the decline of one of my once-favorite artists more than this new, antiseptic version of “Precious Things,” which sounds like music for shop window dummies. I could also mention Suzanne Vega, who completed her much more successful re-recording project with the graceful Close Up Volume 4 this month. The acoustic versions on the Close Up set run the gamut of Vega’s career, and showcase just what a tremendous songwriter she is.
I could also bring up Norah Jones, who delivered one of the year’s biggest surprises with Little Broken Hearts. I’m hoping to find time and space to give this a full review soon, but here’s a sneak preview. Jones teamed up with Danger Mouse, and together, they brought her voice to marvelous new places. The album is dark and slinky and awash in electronics, and despite the fact that it sounds like nothing Jones has ever done, she’s comfortable here. No, hell, she shines. Little Broken Hearts is a must-hear record from an artist who, as far as I’m concerned, has never made one before.
These would all be good choices, but the solo artist I most want to talk about this time is Beki Hemingway.
Longtime readers will remember my glowing mini-review of Hemingway’s 2002 full-length, Words for Loss for Words. That album went on to earn a place on my top 10 list that year, on the strength of Hemingway’s songs. I still include “Good Again” and “To Spare You” on mix CDs for friends, and the latter song can still reduce me to a quivering puddle, so sharp and graceful are its lyrics. I wondered then why Beki Hemingway isn’t famous, and expected it would happen before long.
Well, it still hasn’t, and I still don’t understand. Granted, she hasn’t done a lot since then – she made an Americana record and a Christmas EP with fellow songwriter Jonathan Rundman – so maybe it’s unreasonable to expect everyone to take notice. But man, everyone is missing out. Hemingway has a new EP called I Have Big Plans for the World, and it’s great – meat and potatoes pop songs played with a snarling verve. I dare you to listen to this and not like it.
I Have Big Plans is only six songs, and less than half an hour. But that’s enough to show you what Hemingway can do. This EP is the loudest thing she’s done – opener “Lose My Mind” stacks up the roaring guitars, but Hemingway’s strong voice cuts through them, delivering a chorus you’ll be singing for hours. The song reminds me of Jonatha Brooke at her most raucous, a sense that continues through “Last Wish,” with its delightful electric piano and soaring chorus. “Northbound Traffic” brings Wayside stalwarts John and Michelle Thompson on board for a dusty rocker right out of the Lucinda Williams playbook.
Hemingway saves her best material for the end, though. “Finnieston” is the record’s one quiet moment, featuring cello from Jen Smith and backing vocals by another terrific songwriter, Carey Ott. It’s a gentle oasis of a tune, and it leads perfectly into the closer, “Skybound.” A nimble mini-epic that once again brings Jonatha Brooke to mind, the song just takes flight, Hemingway harmonizing with herself beautifully. “We could be skybound,” she sings, and I can’t imagine what’s holding her to the ground. The song is just wonderful.
I just don’t get why Beki Hemingway isn’t better known. If you’re a fan of strong, literate pop songwriting, you owe it to yourself to check her work out. She deserves to be famous, and I’d be stunned if you can get through all six songs on I Have Big Plans for the World and disagree. Beki’s website is here and you can buy her record from CD Baby here.
See you in line Tuesday morning.