Tuesday, 12 October 2010

A Bit on the Side

This article originally appeared on the peerless (yet now sadly defunct) Gobshout.com. It's owners are now Suburban Tarts, who should be visited post-haste...

Recently I was subjected to a horrible misfortune, with which I am only now coming to terms. It happened at a house party (these things always do) and left me with a deep feeling of unease and the undeniable urge to shower. For those of you who have not already guessed, the incident was this: I heard Brandon Flowers solo record in it's entirety.

The thing about this album that made my brain do cartwheels is the plain and simple fact that it is a Killers record. To all intents and purposes it sounds exactly the same as any of the records the guy has made with his band of glorified Las Vegas session musicians. The audacity of this forced the breath from my body and the rest of my whiskey down my throat. How dare he do this, I wondered. What is the point, I further mused, of having a side project if it's just going to sound almost exactly the same as the band to which it is an aside? The next day, when the hangover cleared and I had wiped the last vestiges of half-eaten kebab from my face and pillow, it was time to investigate further.

The "side project" or "solo record" is a term that often fills those who obsess about music with dread. It's usually a chance for a musician with an over-inflated view of themselves to apply their "creativity" without the confines of their already established band. This frequently ends badly, though often humorously. Nowhere is the self-regard of these people better presented than when members of laughable bands attempt something "credible" or more real. Fightstar are a case in point here. Pop Muppets Busted were never likely to contribute in any meaningful way to the canon of popular music, preferring instead to pogo aimlessly with guitars that (if you have a careful look at some of their live performances on TV) were not actually plugged in. Eventually becoming disillusioned with all this and realising belatedly that he had a valid contribution to make, Charlie Simpson walked out, gathered some cronies who knew a few more chords and signed himself up to indie label Search and Destroy (best known for launching The Darkness to a nation hitherto starved of irony). It was a brave and ultimately lucrative move. Charlie seemed oblivious to half the world giggling behind their hands as he cheerfully provided quotes seemingly devoid of the aforementioned irony: "It was the first time I'd recorded anything that I loved," he bleated.

I guess you could call Charlie's new band a "post-project", given that it didn't happen on the side any more than was necessary for contractual obligation. Other examples of this are pretty common: when 90s indie legends Suede finally tired of excreting all over their considerable legacy, they did the decent thing and split up. Brett Anderson and Bernard Butler wondered off in opposite directions. Then came The Tears, who were fronted by... Anderson and Butler. And they were rubbish. Even one album was too many. It just begs the question: why?

Elsewhere in the catalogue of joyously misguided side projects, one bumps into Corey Taylor. And apologises quickly, because he's a big guy. For those of you who to whom this name does not immediately ring a bell, Taylor is the lead singer of panto-metal combo Slipknot. Your author is deeply fascinated by this band (I studied Artaud as part of my Theatre Studies A Level and I know the Theatre of Cruelty when I see it), but the brilliant sense of wild terror afforded for them by their grotesque masks was somehow shattered when their lead singer decided to strike out with new band Stone Sour, ditch the mask and reveal himself to be a slightly chubby, middle-aged skater.

It doesn't always go wrong of course, sometimes it can go right. Consider the odd folk mix of genres found on Out of Season by Beth Gibbons and Rustin' Man. It's a beautiful record and, with exception of Gibbons's amazingly distinctive vocals, a departure from the gloomy trip-hop of Portishead. Erland Oye also deserves an honourable mention for simultaneously conducting an excellent solo career, contributing vocals to Royksopp records and working as part of Whitest Boy Alive, all whilst keeping his main band (the peerless Kings of Convenience) ticking over.

No, the good side projects are the ones where the artist does something completely different from their previous output, with different people and with a honed appreciation of the possible rubbishness of their actions. Ryan Adams is a master at this, although whether he gets the last point is probably up for debate. In 2006, he released no less than 18 albums via a live stream on his website. Almost every corner of music was probed (hip-hop, death metal, scratchy covers of folk standards) and a variety of pseudonyms (a hardcore punk band called The Shit, the death metal group Werewolph and the MC extraordinaire DJ Reggie) were used. It was the Spinal Tap of side projects: a musical career's worth of songs from a man who appeared so bored with his own prolificness that he'd decided to take his creative filters off for a while.

So, what have we learned from our quick whip through the world of side projects? We've learnt they've got to offer a change of pace or a tongue firmly lodged in a cheek. You can't take yourself too seriously, you can't involve your previous bandmates too extensively and you can't be too upset if it's roundly panned. It's just got to offer something slightly different, which is why it's a risky business. If Brandon Flowers had spent six months in his bedroom listening to Rick Wakeman and emerged wearing nothing but a cape and a codpiece and indulging in ten hour Moog sessions, then I would happily give him the time of day. Probably wouldn't listen, mind.

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