Anatomy of a Solo Album
Jenny, Lindsey and Amanda Do It On Their Own

So here is why slotMusic won’t work, and lovers of CDs have nothing to worry about.

You might have heard about this. SanDisk, a company that makes memory cards, has launched a new physical format called slotMusic, that would see albums distributed on thumbnail-sized micro-cards, in MP3 format, with no DRM encoding. (Meaning you can rip it, burn it, and basically do anything you want with it.) They’ve got four big labels – EMI, Sony/BMG, Universal and Warner, who between them own, like, 500 other labels – to sign on, and you’ll start seeing these things in stores next year.

The cards will come with USB sleeves, which will let you plug them into your computers, your phones, your iPods, and (if you have the right hardware) your cars. Sounds good, right? You’re already thinking about selling off your CDs and making way for this new format? Yeah, I’ve had several conversations with fans of the CD, and they’re worried that this will surpass and supplant the shiny little discs before long.

I honestly don’t think so, though, and I’ll tell you why.

Lovers of the physical format want bigger, not smaller, in my view. Vinyl has seen a massive resurgence lately, and it’s not just because the sound quality is warmer and more natural, although that’s part of it. It’s also because vinyl record sleeves look awesome. The artwork is massive and enveloping – it has a physical presence, a context. CDs are similar, if smaller. Even cassettes have that physical presence, although speaking as someone who used to buy tapes regularly, that’s about as small as I’d want to go for my physical product.

And deluxe editions of CD packages for collectors are bearing me out on that – they’re going bigger and bigger. Look at the coffin box for Metallica’s Death Magnetic. Marillion’s Happiness is the Road is shipping as two hardbound books in a slipcase. Big. Hell, look at every box set ever, especially the ones with elaborate packaging, like Tori Amos’ A Piano, or the Doors’ Perception. Collectors of physical products like packaging they can touch and display.

Now imagine the packaging for a thumbnail-sized memory card. I highly doubt the box will be much bigger than the thing itself, especially for standard editions. Artwork? Nonexistent, or it may as well be at that size. The slotMusic card is tiny and disposable and context-free – in fact, you may as well just download MP3s from the comfort of your home.

And I think that’s what digital delivery fans are going to do. For those folks, the physical packaging is disposable, something to be discarded once the music has been transferred to the iPod. There’s no reason to think any physical product is going to sway them from that notion.

Consider this: if I want an MP3 version of Death Magnetic right now, I can either go to iTunes and buy it, or head to any number of torrent sites and steal it, without leaving my chair. Or, when slotMusic comes out, I can get up, shower, get dressed, brush my teeth, get in my car, go to a store and buy a card with those MP3s on it, drive home, open the box, connect it to my computer and rip the music, however that will work. I’d bet option one takes less time, and I know it doesn’t require me to get out of my pajamas.

Option two resembles what I do every week, except I buy CDs I can keep, stack and display, with artwork and liner notes that I value, because I’m a fan of physical products and packaging. I think the labels will need to realize that they’re dealing with two distinct audiences here – old-fashioned music collectors who like the tangible objects, and new-school digital delivery fans who like the immediacy – and slotMusic will likely flop with both of them.

On a slightly related note, anyone interested in gleaning some insight into just how intelligent the major labels really are should read this missive from Justin Ouellette, owner of It’s quite the tale.

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Okay, let’s talk about solo albums this week.

To my mind, there are three different kinds of solo records, and I happen to have an example of each here. Just to be clear, though, we’re not talking about artists who’ve always gone by their own name, like John Mayer or Todd Rundgren, or even artists that go by fake names, like Marilyn Manson. I’m talking about artists that are part of a whole, and then decide to go it alone. Even Conor Oberst, who recently released his first non-Bright Eyes solo album, wouldn’t quite count for what I’m trying to explore here, because for all intents and purposes, he is Bright Eyes. Releasing a solo album is an interesting choice, but not a complete separation from an otherwise viable entity. That’s what I mean – artists who are in a band, but strike out on their own anyway.

And like I said, I think there are three kinds of those albums, each relating to the relative fame of the artist and his/her band. (Whew. You get all that?) Here they are:

1. You are more famous than your band.

In a case like this, staying in the band is the more fascinating decision. If Gwen Stefani, for example, had kept No Doubt going despite the fact that millions of frat boys came out to the shows just to see her, that would have been almost brave. The solo path just made sense for her, and it’s worked, at least commercially. (Listening to Stefani’s solo rubbish, I can scarcely believe I once liked No Doubt at all.)

The same holds true for Jenny Lewis, who is without a doubt the star of Rilo Kiley. Just look at the difference in profile between Lewis’ solo album, Rabbit Fur Coat, and her partner-in-Kiley Blake Sennett’s project, The Elected. Lewis, a former child actor, is the draw – Kiley fans respond to her voice and lyrics more than any other element of that band. (An argument could be made that Lewis fits into category three as well, but cut me some slack. I can only deal with what I have on hand.)

So Lewis making solo records is just a natural progression, I think. But the divergent musical paths her work has taken with and without the band are striking. Rilo Kiley’s latest album, last year’s Under the Blacklight, was a glossed-up pop festival, plastic and funky, fun and lightweight. And now here is Acid Tongue, Lewis’ second solo record, and it’s the exact opposite.

There’s a definite sense of authenticity to Lewis’ solo work, something that has eluded Rilo Kiley. Acid Tongue is an old-time session, a bunch of simple folk-rock songs recorded in three weeks with a slew of guest stars. It was produced by Lewis’ other half, Jonathan Rice, and the whole thing has a natural warmth to it that just radiates from the speakers. This is just as earthy as Rabbit Fur Coat, although it rocks quite a bit more. It’s basically just a nice little record, showcasing Lewis’ fine voice.

The surprises here all come from the guests, in fact. Elvis Costello takes a vocal turn on rocker “Carpetbaggers,” continuing the rootsy vibe of his last few albums. M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel, collectively known as She and Him, add some nice backing vocals and guitar work, as does Benji Hughes. Perhaps the most sit-up-and-take-notice moment of the record is the choir on the title track, which fills up the space left by the sparse arrangement – that choir includes Rice and Black Crowe Chris Robinson.

Lewis acquits herself very well here, though. She strikes a near-Motown vibe on “Trying My Best to Love You,” hits crazy-high notes on “Godspeed,” and turns in an amazing eight-minute, multi-part rock epic called “The Next Messiah.” Acid Tongue is, in its own way, as effervescent as Under the Blacklight, but the sweet acoustic guitars and pianos lend this album a grounded feel – just check out “Jack Killed Mom,” a Dusty Springfield-worthy tale complete with a call-and-response chorus and spoken-word interlude from Hughes. It’s pretty great.

I’m not sure Lewis deserves to be more famous than her band, but records like Acid Tongue prove she has good instincts, writes a decent song, and surrounds herself with the right people. Rilo Kiley has always been an outfit that tries too hard, but Lewis on her own has struck the right notes of authenticity and authority. It’s better than anything she’s done with her band – it seems a solo career is the right move, and I hope she keeps on this path.

2. Your band is more famous than you.

This is kind of the catch-all category. Most solo albums fall here – historically, a solo project has meant some measure of wing-spreading, of taking flight from the nest. It’s easy to stay anonymous, part of a whole, and somewhat more difficult to branch out, own your ideas and sign your name to them. For the most part, that’s a solo album.

Take Lindsey Buckingham, for example. Since 1974 (incidentally the year I was born), Buckingham has been one of the musical cornerstones of Fleetwood Mac, one of the highest-selling bands in pop music history. He’s written half of their hits, and Stevie Nicks has written the other half, with a few exceptions. But the Mac’s band dynamic has never been especially sturdy, and both Buckingham and Nicks had launched solo careers by 1981.

Here’s what I mean when I say the band is more famous than the man: I can all but guarantee you everyone living in the U.S. today knows a Fleetwood Mac song. You know “The Chain.” You know “Landslide.” You know “Go Your Own Way.” Hell, Bill Clinton made sure everybody who lived through the ‘90s knows “Don’t Stop.” You know these songs. But the number of people I meet who think Lindsey Buckingham is the female singer and Stevie Nicks the male one is staggering. People know the tunes, but they don’t know the tunesmiths.

In a very real sense, it’s no longer a risk for Buckingham to make solo albums. He’s seen two of his solo projects cannibalized for Fleetwood Mac sessions, in fact – for 1987’s Tango in the Night and 2003’s Say You Will. But lately, he’s been going through the most prolific period of his musical life. After his brilliant third solo album, 1992’s Out of the Cradle, Buckingham pretty much disappeared for a decade, but the Say You Will sessions have revitalized him.

In 2006, Buckingham released Under the Skin, an aching, confessional, acoustic record that shone twin spotlights on his amazing finger-picked guitar work and his aging, breathy voice. At the time, he promised a more upbeat, electric guitar album would be coming soon, but nobody actually expected it before the next decade, especially since he sweetened the pot with a live album last year.

But holy crap, here it is – Gift of Screws is an odd, mesmerizing, terrific Buckingham album. His voice remains in shaky shape, but everything else here is in fine, fine form. Take opener “Great Day,” for instance. It starts with a drum machine’s skittering beat, an unadorned vocal, and a few guitar flourishes. It slowly morphs into a tour de force, however, Buckingham whipping out a blistering electric guitar solo that proves he hasn’t lost a note.

“Time Precious Time” is even weirder, yet more rewarding. It’s almost entirely finger-picked guitar and vocal, and if you’ve never heard Buckingham play, you’ll be amazed at how fast and how precise he is. The song’s chorus is sung over a blissful ascending and descending guitar pattern that knocks me out. Things smooth out from there, with “Did You Miss Me” standing as one of Buckingham’s catchiest songs in years, and “Wait For You” cranking out a fiery blues.

In 10 songs and 39 minutes, Buckingham covers a lot of musical ground, and he does it all well. Just check out the title track, with its mini-Fleetwood Mac reunion – Mick Fleetwood’s on drums, and John McVie’s on bass. But if you were expecting a polished pop gem from this song, be prepared for an off-kilter garage-rock extravaganza, with yelping vocals and some awesome guitar playing. Two songs later, he’s ending the album with the graceful, almost gospel “Treason,” layering his own voice into a chorale.

A good solo album should give fans of the band, especially fans who don’t give a damn who wrote what song or played what guitar solo, a reason to jump ship and follow it out to sea. Gift of Screws more than does that. At age 58, with a voice that just isn’t what it once was, Lindsey Buckingham has gone and made one of his best solo discs anyway, and Mac fans could do a lot worse than trying it out.

3. Neither you nor your band are famous.

Now, I suppose there’s a fourth category, for solo artists that are equally as famous as the bands they’re in, but honestly, I can only think of one case, and that’s Genesis and Phil Collins. And it could be argued that Collins made Genesis famous, hence dropping this file into category one, but that’s another argument.

Off the top of my head, though, I can think of a dozen instances in which a band and a solo career exist in equal obscurity. (Daniel Amos and Terry Taylor, or LSU and Mike Knott, or more recently, Band of Horses and Tyler Ramsey.) The question then becomes this – if your band hasn’t made its mark in the public consciousness, why launch a solo career? Sometimes the answer is commercial, sometimes personal, but more often than not, it’s because the solo songs don’t sound like the band songs, and wouldn’t fit under that banner.

Here’s a great example: Amanda Palmer. If you know her at all, you know her as the piano-vocal half of the Dresden Dolls, a band that somehow combines the theatrical and the confessional without compromising either one. They’re known for a piano-punk sound with heaping helpings of German cabaret influence, and as you may have guessed, they’re utterly unique. Their two albums (and one b-sides collection) are dense and difficult, but fascinating and rewarding.

So when Palmer found herself with a bunch of drum-deficient pop songs last year, she really had no choice but to make a solo album. Now, I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I’ve known the title of this record – Who Killed Amanda Palmer – for about two months, and I just got the Twin Peaks reference this week. Pity me, I am slow. But I immediately figured out that her choice of co-producer, the great Ben Folds, meant that this would be a different Amanda Palmer on display.

And I was right. Things are different right from the start, as Palmer’s piano gives way to sweet strings on opener “Astronaut.” About half of these songs are pretty ballads, filled out with violins and cellos. I’m especially enamored of “Blake Says,” but the immediate standout is “Ampersand,” as in, “I’m not going to live my life on one side of an ampersand.” Piano, orchestra, Palmer’s surprisingly pretty voice, and that’s all. It’s wonderful.

“Runs in the Family” is perhaps the most Dolls-esque song, rapid-firing five notebook pages of lyrics over 2:45 of explosive music. “Leeds United” finds Palmer’s voice running ragged as she spits out a great melody over a rollicking horn section. “Guitar Hero” teams her with East Bay Ray of the Dead Kennedys for a mid-tempo nod-along, and Annie Clark of St. Vincent joins in for a lighter-than-air cover of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “What’s the Use of Wond’rin?” (She makes it about domestic violence, just through context, and it works.)

There are two things that haven’t changed, though – Palmer’s voice and lyrics. Her words here are tender and tragic, most often – she even wrings pathos from roadkill deer on “Have to Drive,” and when she takes on self-identity in “Ampersand” and inherited personality disorders in “Runs in the Family,” you can’t help wondering how autobiographical it all is.

Palmer tells stories as well as her co-producer does – just check out “Oasis,” a bluntly shocking tale of teenage life that puts equal emphasis on having an abortion and joining a band’s fan club. And then there is “Strength Through Music,” which isn’t directly about Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, but may as well be. It’s creepy and bare-bones, Palmer whispering most of the lyrics: “It’s so simple, the way that they fall, no bang or whimper, no sound at all…”

The record closes with a pair of beautiful ballads, Palmer finding new corners to send her strong, rich voice while Folds’ string arrangements surround her. “I’m not as callous as you think, I barely breathe when you are near,” she sings in “Another Year,” and it’s one of the record’s most striking moments.

And when it’s over, there’s no doubt – this is Amanda Palmer’s solo album, and she’s reinvented herself. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Palmer and the Dresden Dolls continue down parallel, yet totally separate paths, and it’s great to hear such diversity from this talented songwriter. I’m probably as tired of saying this as you are of hearing it by this point, but Who Killed Amanda Palmer is one of the best records of the year.

Next week, Ben Folds, and whoever else I can find time to listen to. Plus, the Third Quarter Report.

See you in line Tuesday morning.