To me, rock ’n’ roll has always been a band’s medium. Although plenty of talented men and women have expressed their individual visions through rock, the thrilling tension that marks the music’s most inspired moments came mainly from collaboration. Think of Ray Davies, forced to modulate his gift to suit his volatile brother Dave, or Paul Weller and Bob Mould channeling their sound through players whose company they can barely stand.
A solo artist, on the other hand, can hire whomever he chooses, to play whatever he demands, and can become locked up by the excess freedom. Consider, for instance, that even a versatile solo player like Elvis Costello has done his best work with the Attractions; the same goes for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.
If I were ever to change my mind about this idea, though, it would be right now. 1998 has been the year of the troubadour, led most notably by Lucinda Williams’ outstanding Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. She’s not alone in her solo-ness: The most highly acclaimed album of the year may be The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Hill’s soul is too remote and subdued for my taste, but I can speak with enthusiasm about other great current solo records, including Richard Buckner’s stark, earthy Still and Josh Rouse’s passionate, ghostly Dressed Up Like Nebraska.
And then there’s what may be my favorite record of the year so far, The Spinanes’ Arches and Aisles. The Spinanes were once an actual bandwell, a duomaking a minimalist racket on the albums Manos and Strand. Then drummer Scott Plouf left to play with Built to Spill, and singer-guitarist Rebecca Gates moved to Chicago to pal around with some other musicians, including post-rock figurehead John McEntire (who does memorable work on Richard Buckner’s album).
The first two Spinanes albums were surprisingly melodic and complex, but the songs were more like blueprints than finished works. Arches and Aisles, by contrast, is pretty darn lush. The album opens with “Kid in Candy,” an intricate network of rhythm guitar signatures, shambling drums, bubbling analog synths, and melodic bass lines. The instruments drop in and out as Gates breathily exhorts the listener to join her on a journey out westa trip that the song’s masterful construction makes especially inviting.
The next song, “Greetings From the Sugar Lick,” is a mellow, moaning ballad, shattered by dissonant bursts of electric guitaralmost as if Sonic Youth stumbled into an Alanis Morrisette recording session. Then “72-74” kicks it up a notch, as Gates duets with herself over stuttering lead guitar and a propulsive beat. Other rocking highlights include the strum-happy “Love, the Lazee,” the punk-girl-group-inspired “Sucker’s Trial,” and the jaw-dropping quiet squall “Reach V. Speed.”
Gates’ odd constructions and raw jangle are sweetened considerably by her vignette-ish lyrics. (Sample: “Shaking toward shelter/And vodka on ice/Looking forward to Auld Lang Syne.”) Arches and Aisles gets a bit foggy toward the end, as Gates reverts to a musical impressionism that matches her lyrics but doesn’t uplift them. Still, this is one case of a solo artist and her sidemen making music like an actual band.
By contrast, Chocolate Genius’ debut album Black Music is almost solely the product of one Marc Anthony Thompson. Some of the songs were written collaboratively, and other musicians do pop up, but Thompson is to Chocolate Genius what Prince was to The Revolutionpretty much the whole show.
That’s about the only comparison between Prince and Chocolate Genius, though. Thompson is more of a sad-sack saloon singer of the Tom Waits ilk. Although, thanks to the soul elements that he self-consciously weaves throughout Black Music, the project comes off like an Isaac Hayes record as sung by Mark Eitzel.
The accent is on Eitzel. Thompson shares a vocal style with the former American Music Club singer, and he also shares a fondness for songs about drinking and loneliness. On “My Mom,” he describes his mother’s slow debilitation with a chorus that cries “My Mom can’t remember my name.” Elsewhere in the same song, he takes the listener on the tour of his house: “See that hole in the wall?/That was Seagram’s, I think.”
What saves Chocolate Genius from unlistenable pretension is an entertainer’s instinct for wit and redemption, as well as for real beauty. “Don’t Look Down” uses a slow rhythm and a harp-like guitar strum to set up a classic erotic soul frameworka comparison that Thompson emphasizes with spoken-word segments à la Barry White. “Safe and Sound” plays off a rare up-tempo beat to offer good wishes to an ex-lover. Even the wallowing “Hangover Nine” is buoyed by a skittering pattern of drums, bass, and guitar that recalls Talking Heads’ Remain in Light.
At the core, Chocolate Genius is just another sad boy with a guitar, but Thompson’s formidable talent elevates him above the average mopey troubadour. He could stand to learn a little about sequencingthere are no ear-catching songs on Black Music until track threebut he’ll remain an interesting performer so long as he lets his soul show a little more than his somberness.
If you’re looking for a poster boy to join Lucinda Williams for the Year of the Troubadour, you may well call on Elliot Smith, who’s been featured all summer in articles about “the new folk.” Smith is a castaway from the Portland, Ore., punk band Heatmiser and has cranked out three wispy acoustic albums for the indie label Kill Rock Stars, each of which features repetitive variations on the sound of The Beatles’ “Mother Nature’s Son.”
XO is Smith’s major-label debut, recorded for Dreamworks Records (whose other buzz album this year is by Rufus Wainwright, yet another troubadour). Smith takes the big corporate dollars and opens up his sound, adding orchestral underpinnings and allowing himself to rock out from time to time.
The album opens with “Sweet Adeline,” a minor-key folk number that’s almost overwhelmed halfway through by crashing cymbals, multi-tracked vocals, and contrapuntal piano. After the opener, Smith retreats to more familiar ground on the whisper-thin, acoustic “Tomorrow Tomorrow.” After that, though, XO really begins in earnest, as Smith assays “Waltz #2,” a careening piano ballad with subtle twangs of electric guitar. A shift to louder, clearer enunciation of the lyrics adds surprisingly emotional tones to the singer’s typically wan performance. For the first time, he openly engages the listener in his mood and his meaning. He drives home this new sonic perestroika with “Baby Britain,” a guitar-piano-drums popfest that sounds like XTC without Andy Partridge’s acidity. It’s one of those songs that sounds so much like a hit single that it’s almost certain to be ignored by radiolike a pretty girl who scares off suitors with her pristine untouchability.
The rest of XO alternates between more subdued acoustic guitar mumbles and alarmingly brusque rock songs, but the addition of varietyeven if it’s only two stylesgives Smith’s music depth and breadth. The barely-there folk songs sound fresher when counterbalanced by shots of adrenaline. Even if the album’s familiarity ultimately breeds indifference, XO has moments of inescapable passion and beauty.
Would Smith do better if he had a regular collaborator to push him in strange directions and tell him when his songs are stretched too thin? Probably so. But even with the broader palette on XO, he doesn’t give in to the capriciousness that can make solo artists so hard to rely on. His next album should be even more exciting.
As for me, I still prefer bands to solo artists, mainly because when a band stretches itself, you’re hearing a diverse group of people harnessing their creative energies to make a living work of art. When a solo act wants to stretch, it’s a matter of calling the right session men. Of course, the bottom line is that good music is good music, no matter the mechanics of its creation. If men and women with guitars and arranging skills keep turning out albums as good as they have in 1998, I may have to hum away my opinions.
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