Ah, the rock n’ roll side project: in any long career it’s difficult for a rock star to resist the temptation to indulge. Weary of their official identities, worn out by fan expectations, they seek in a change of name or collaborators a reinvigoration of the creative juices. So yes: while Mick Jagger’s Superheavy was indeed pretty rotten, it is easy to understand why he joined up with Dave Stewart, Joss Stone, one of the Marleys and that chap from Slumdog Millionaire.
THIS IS BAD, DON’T LISTEN TO IT:
So too we can understand why U2 briefly dabbled with the idea of being Brian Eno’s backing band under the name Passengers, why David Bowie became Tin Machine and why Paul McCartney fiddles about with synthesizers as The Fireman (highly recommended by Ozzy Osbourne in his autobiography). Those among us who know he exists may even sympathize with country singer Hank Williams III, who at one time moonlighted as bass guitarist in Phil Anselmo’s heavy metal band Superjoint Ritual.
But we probably wouldn’t want to listen to too much of that stuff. And yet is the rock side project always so unnecessary? No. In fact, pop pickers, I can think of at least four that I enjoy.
NOT BAD #1
Let’s start with Thom Yorke’s 2006 solo album The Eraser. Clearly wanting to pursue more of the mildly experimental electronic sounds of Radiohead’s Kid A, Yorke temporarily stepped away from his day job so that he could be free to indulge his interest in glitchy beats, fragile fuzzy synth noises, and paranoia. I have vague recollections of Paul Morley mumbling a withering comparison to the likes of Aphex Twin and Squarepusher, but Yorke’s album resembles the work of neither artist, however much he may enjoy their music.
These are still songs, but shaded by Yorke’s taste for sounds more radical than his own – just as Bowie’s Low sounds nothing at all like Kraftwerk or the hyper-experimental Cluster, both of which Teutonic outfits he reportedly drew inspiration from. Anyway, I like The Eraser more than most of Radiohead’s output and still play it fairly regularly. Here’s the main single from the album, which was inspired by the case of David Kelly, a UK government scientist who killed himself during the Iraq invasion controversy in 2003:
NOT BAD #2
In 1997 Nick Cave released an album of sombre piano ballads, The Boatman’s Call, instantly propelling him from his status as a junkie nutcase singing about murder to serious, fairly literary singer songwriter. The Guardian started camping out on his doorstep and he has never quite recovered. In 2006 however Cave stepped away from his band The Bad Seeds to form Grinderman, a group consisting exclusively of members of The Bad Seeds, only not all of them. In spite of this, Grinderman was a distinct beast as the songs were not through-composed by Cave in his office (his usual m.o.) but rather the result of lengthy group jams in the studio with Cave playing guitar instead of piano, and improvising lyrics.
Grinderman 2 is better than Grinderman 1, and both records are better than the mystifyingly overrated Bad Seeds record Dig Lazarus Dig! Meanwhile if you took all the best songs from both records and added them together you would have ¾ of an excellent album. By and large the Grinderman sound is raucous, lascivious, profane and even a bit proggy, suggestive on the second LP of 70s German rockers Amon Duul II. But since this is Sunday I’ve selected a more laid-back tune, The Palaces of Montezuma – one of Cave’s best songs over the last ten years, it contains the marvelous line: “The spinal cord of JFK/Wrapped in Marilyn Monroe’s negligee”.
NOT BAD #3
Next we come to Mark Lanegan, onetime front man of extinct grunge rockers The Screaming Trees who has long since outgrown his musical roots. Lanegan’s career is tricky to chart as it consists primarily of side projects. He started releasing solo albums while still in The Screaming Trees, then joined Queens of the Stone Age; then renamed himself The Mark Lanegan Band and recorded the excellent Bubblegum. Following that he dabbled with former members of Belle and Sebastian, the Afghan Whigs and The Soulsavers and numerous enjoyable records appeared under different names as a result.
Collaborations now outnumber solo recordings and Lanegan is often happy to take a backseat to other writers. I often think that Lanegan has one of the great rock voices- gruff, soulful, sorrowful, sepulchral- but it has not yet been matched to truly great songwriting. Perhaps that’s what he’s searching for. Here he does find an exceptional song- Gene Clark’s “Some Misunderstanding”, which Lanegan covered on his second collaboration with The Soulsavers:
NOT BAD # 4
David Thomas is probably the most obscure singer on this list, but in his role as leader of avant-rockers Pere Ubu he has been influential: even The Edge is a fan. But while I don’t mind a bit of Pere Ubu I have to say that I prefer Thomas’ side project with the 2 pale boys, which I first saw perform live around ten years ago. They are an absolutely unique outfit: Thomas handles vocals and squeeze box while the 2 pale boys play trumpet and guitar, fed through a variety of effects pedals. Most of their shows are heavily improvised, and “songs” can run for eight to ten minutes at a time. Usually Thomas takes a lyric from his repertoire and blends it with spoken word, jokes, improvisations and his unique brand of strangled singing. It’s not always easy to listen to, but the cumulative effect is spectacular.
Around the year 2000 I stumbled upon their album Meadville and listened to it in constant rotation for months. It’s a powerful road narrative of America, set to eerie and avant-garde backing noises, sometimes funny, sometimes haunting, sometimes grating. Great stuff, in other words. On the other hand, it’s not conducive to Youtube clips, so I have picked their “cover” of Elvis Presley’s “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You” to showcase a little of how they twist and modify songs. It starts off sounding like a joke, but then the 2 pale boys begin their strange transformations …
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