Friday, February 15, 2008

Are Solo Albums Good or Bad for the Band?

By Nicole Pope

Last year seemed to bring an exorbitant number of solo releases, from lovers Feist and Kevin Drew to Thurston Moore to Panda Bear. Ordinarily the very idea of a solo album leaves me lukewarm, yet 2007 proved if not incredible on all accounts, at least intriguing.

Why do artists record solo albums, I've wondered, and are they a sign of a healthy collaboration with a band's fellow members, or the heralding of the end?

Perhaps it's crucial to draw a distinction between solo albums that allow a musician to grow on his or her own terms, and those that seem to be merely a rehashing or watered-down version of the music performed by the full band.

I can't say enough about Panda Bear's sophomore triumph Person Pitch. Here, in my mind, is an example of an album that is so distinctly PB, it simply could not have been an Animal Collective release. Noah Lennox said, hey, I have something to say outside the scope of the band, and he made that happen. Then AC reconvened and recorded Strawberry Jams, an album that further showcases the talent Panda Bear exhibits on PP, without damaging the band's cohesiveness. A strong solo release, in Animal Collective's case, made for a stronger band.

Most solo albums, on the other hand, fail to push an artist's sound beyond that of their full-time band. Thurston Moore's Trees Outside the Academy contains a handful of impressive tracks, including the incredible "Silver Chair," yet ultimately disappoints. Why? Because as one of the major players in Sonic Youth, arguably one of the best rock bands EVER, I think we all expected so much more. The same could be said about Thom Yorke's The Eraser. This is an enjoyable record, no doubt, but was anyone else disappointed that -- both lyrically and musically -- Thom could be so normal? And don't even get me started on Stephen Malkmus.

So maybe all this proves is that the push and pull of multiple band members is critical. (Any Verve fan who's tried to listen to Richard Ashcroft's solo material can speak to this point.) Beyond simply being lackluster, though, some solo albums seem to signal trouble amongst the ranks. I've already expressed my fears about The New Pornographers, whose multi-talented members as of late seem to be pouring their best material into their individual careers. I have similar fears following the success of Feist's The Reminder. Will Broken Social Scene soon have to subsist without the talented songstress, leaving us with merely Broken Social Scene Presents Kevin Drew? (Shudders.)

Lastly, with some solo artists I wonder, why bother? This April Colin Meloy will release a solo album. Beings that Meloy is the heart and soul of The Decemberists (penning both the music and lyrics), I'm not sure what the point of a solo album would be. If you ask me, this makes about as much sense as a Kevin Barnes or Sam Beam solo album. Am I missing something here?


Hackworth Artifex said...

Speaking of The Eraser, is Spitting Feathers any good?

SonicRyan said...

Panda Bear made an excellent solo album, true, but have you heard Pullhair Rubeye? Granted, its not technically solo, but Avey Tare's 2007 non-Animal Collective outing is definitely on the other side of the spectrum from Person Pitch. (Unless you play it forward, then it sounds like a more laid back, normal Sung Tongs).

Not that I think you're entirely inaccurate about Panda Bear and his contribution to Strawberry Jam, I'm just not convinced that Person Pitch affected the it in any way, and if it did, it must have really overcompensated for Pullhair Rubeye.

As for BSS, I don't think Feist's solo career will necessarily affect her contributions to BSS, though I can see how it might. The fact that she's gaining mainstream success, something even BSS haven't quite accomplished, could be a hindrance. Then again, guesting on a few BSS songs like she has in the past might be a way to stay busy in between her own tours and recording her own material. As for Kevin Drew, I still hesitate to even call that a solo album, it has as many guest appearances as a freakin' BSS ablum. I'm convinced he'll be back in the mode for some real BSS action once the Do Make Say Think gang are also ready. The more I've gotten into DMST the more I've realized their influence on BSS's sound.

I thought I should note that the Colin Meloy solo album you referred to is a live album, unless you know something I don't.

Pig Lib is awesome, and that's good enough for me.

The Moon said...

Ever since the Kevin Drew album I've been pretty much assuming Broken Social Scene as we knew it is gone...

It kind of seemed like the whole purpose of the "Broken Social Scene presents Kevin Drew" tag line was to transition people into looking for his name rather than BSS. That or bring his name more recognition for BSS, considering the subsequent success of other BSS members?


To me solo albums like Thurston Moores do serve a purpose... they give you an entire albums worth of songs without Kim Gordon. It really doesn't have to break new ground if it does that. =P

Femme Fatale said...

Ha! More Kim backlash! Seriously, though, I think this might be why Murray Street is my favorite SY album.

Femme Fatale said...

P.S. SonicRyan, I did have a sentence in there about how Avey Tare needs to get with the program. But in all honesty, I think Strawberry Jams really showcases his talent, too. So I guess all I can really say is that I know Person Pitch has had a positive effect on the band's output -- as in PB seems to have a more pronounced role on this album. I think our man Avey is capable of making an excellent solo album, but the whole Pulleye Rubhair thing was, let's be honest, ridiculous.

SonicRyan said...

Hey, let's get serious here folks, we all know that when Kim's on, she's on. Thurston may be the more consistent of the three songwriters, but he also has some of the most practice (Kim didn't start to get equal billing until they signed to Geffen, but even since there have been albums, like Murray Street, where she takes a backseat role). But despite Thurston's consistency, Kim and Lee both have the capability to steal the show, and very often when one of them doesn't, the album as a whole tends to suffer (NYC Ghosts & Flowers anyone?)

G said...

Ashcroft's albums have been hit or miss in terms of the tracks, but the tracks that hit have been greater than his work with The Verve. Things are more personal, but there isn't that group of musicians that keep him responsible for putting out consistent efforts. It is misguided to say his solo records don't touch that same depth just because The Verve put out two masterpieces.

I for one am Fuck-the-Beatles and give me solo John Lennon so that no-talent assclown McCartney isn't there to fuck it up. I wish Lennon would've had more time to show the world what he was capable of with the restraints of that hack. We all know the shite that Paul has brought us since... ughh...

Another obvious example of solo records being good is Amy Millan. None of Stars's or BSS's efforts ever touched at the depth of her solo effort. I would gladly light all those other group efforts on fire for the chance to hear her by herself again...

The Moon said...

I think it's kind of funny that as many of us have touched on the personal likes and dislikes of the solo album we have all seemingly managed to ignore the original question the author posed.

Are solo albums good or bad for the band?

In all fairness though, I'm not sure this is an easy question to answer.


For a band like Animal Collective, who's creativity seemingly flows forth like the Niagara, I believe the solo serves a greater purpose. Allowing, for better or worse, the member in question to release excess enegry that might not be quite right for the original band. All the while, not really harming the original dynamics. Think of Spencer Krug (though some of you may not be as big of a fan of Wolf Parade/Handsome Furs/Swan Lake/Frog Eyes as me... think of the Elephant Six collective?

On the other hand, for a band like No Doubt allowing a member to step outside of the construct of the band almost always spells curtain doom. Opening up feelings of jealousy amongst members and more times then not over inflating the ego of the solo artist. There by never allowing the band to perform with the same unity again. (yes I know this is a weird band to pick but I am hardcore blanking)

Ultimately I think the goals of the band itself sets the perimeters for whether something like a solo album would be ok. Is the band in it for the money/sex, is the band trying to say something/artistic vision, or are they just playing music for fun?

SonicRyan said...

Good point there at the end. I think most solo albums, providing they aren't a product of a prior band breaking up (Malkmus, for example), can most often be attributed to an artist either playing music for fun (Thurston) or trying to express their artistic vision (Panda Bear).

But as for the question "are they good for the band," I can't say one way or another. I don't think they're bad for the band, which is ultimately a more important concern IMO, but I just can't bring myself to say that Strawberry Jam is as good as it is because Panda Bear got to make Person Pitch, or because Person Pitch is as good as it is, etc, because I'm not 100% sure that's accurate either.