Hey, it’s that Steve Mason again, in transition between life in The Beta Band, and life as a solo artist recording under his own name. Musically, this is more Beta than Mason, which means it was still just a little bit too much over to the side of the road to catch the audience it deserved. I don’t think that name helped his cause, though. King Biscuit Time? (For the record, it’s the name of the longest running daily American Radio Broadcast, which has been on air in Helena, Arkansas, since 21st November 1941: 16,840 shows and counting. The show was named after its first sponsor, King Biscuit Flour.)
How can someone possibly be part of a band that wrote a song like “Dry The Rain” (you know, the one John Cusack plays in High Fidelity) and yet still wind up deep in debt, and even deeper in depression? Baffling.
After The Beta Band split, Mason had a stint as King Biscuit Time, before eventually breaking free and recording under his own name. There’s traces of the easy Beta Band groove on Monkey Minds In The Devil’s Time, but between the incidental segments, spoken words and soundscapes, there are rousing anthems, and solid, safely alternative stylings that have made Mason a bit of a BBC 6 Music darling in 2013.
I have never really bothered with Peter Gabriel-era Genesis; it’s extremely doubtful that I ever will, from the little I have dared to expose myself to. I guess I dabbled a little with the Genesis of “Invisible Touch” and “Land of Confusion”, but by 1991’s We Can’t Dance I had roughly zero interest. A year later, Gabriel released Us, and chose “Digging In The Dirt” as its first single. To accompany it, a video, complete with claymation like on that other Gabriel song – you know the one, don’t you? Reasonably famous, I’d say…
Anyway, the best thing about the CD single was a beautiful, stripped bare version of Gabriel’s follow-up single “Steam”. Called “Quiet Steam”, it’s really a wonderful minimal version, and well worth seeking out.
Northern Soul with a howl and a snarl: the sound of a man coming through the other side of a near four-year recovery from strokes and brain haemorrhages: the gloriously direct sound of a man clawing back the ability to speak, write, and compose. I challenge anyone not to feel, in some way, uplifted by the song and the man.
Out somewhere beyond sumptuous, such a rich voice, and song-writing that takes you back to some non-specific good old days, the result is somehow contemporary and yet at least 50, 60, 70 years old; it’s hard to believe Richard Hawley was just kicking around in the Britpop milieu, first with Longpigs then with Pulp, before his friends pointed out to him that the material he’d been tinkering with in his spare time was, you know, pretty amazing actually.
Because he’s so good, and because you’re worth it, today there’s a bonus video of “Serious”, from Lady’s Bridge (2007), because it’s:
- A damn fine song
- A damn fine and funny video
Recently, Hawley has become something of a BBC 6 Music darling, receiving perhaps more than a healthy dose of airplay since the release of his most recent album, the Mercury nominated Standing At The Sky’s Edge, including a live performance with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra as part of the station’s 2012 celebration of live music.
The second single from the Blur guitarist’s fifth and most successful solo album, “Bittersweet Bundle of Misery” is a treasure chest of riffs and pieces that remind you of various Blur moments. The first and most obvious comparison is with “Coffee & TV”, from Blur’s album 13, and for which Coxon wrote the lyrics and sang the verse. You can’t accuse him of ripping himself off here, though, because songwriting credit for “Coffee & TV” is given to Damon Albarn. To these ears there’s more than a hint of earlier Blur as well, particularly “Colin Zeal” and “Coping”, both from Modern Life is Rubbish (1993). It probably also sounds like Blur songs that don’t begin with the letter “C” as well, but that’s enough to be going on with.
Suedehead was Morrissey’s debut single; his first release after the break-up of The Smiths. It appeared on Now That’s What I Call Music 11, half a copy of which I own – an incompleteness suggesting that it was found, never mine in the first place rather than a careless disregard for the second cassette.
Suedehead bewitched and confused me right from the start, first with the slow fade-in, which always seemed wholly un-pop single-like, and then with the lyric, which I could never get to grips with. I didn’t know what or who a Suedehead was, and was perhaps afraid to ask. Had my curiosity won over my caution I would still have been none the wiser, since the song isn’t really about the Suedehead culture at all – Morrissey just happened to be reading about it at the time, and liked the word. The outro and its repetition of the “Oh it was a good lay, good lay” motif was lost on me. Morrissey’s ability to wring a schwa out of the briefest of moments between the words “good” and “lay” wasn’t helping, confusing me into inventing likely-sounding words (goudalé, anyone?) to sing out to the close.
The video doesn’t quite live up to the song – the storyboard presumably just said “I love James Dean”. As Stuart Maconie put it writing in the NME at the end of the year:
A nation…was even willing to forgive a silly, indulgent video where the lad himself drove a tractor and wandered pointlessly around James Dean’s back yard. Moz had yet to learn that it was he, not his obsessions, that we were in love with.
It’s no coincidence that after Rose Elinor Dougall and her fellow vocalists left them, The Pipettes swiftly plummeted from pitch-perfect Phil Spector admirers to a sorry papier mâché pastiche of the same: once a deliberately manufactured band, not cynically or ironically but gleefully and conveniently, they became a bad cover version of themselves. Instead, the vibrancy that made The Pipettes so much fun was to be found in Dougall’s solo debut Without Why. From start to finish it pings and fizzes round her strong vocals, more serious than the bubblegum pop of We Are The Pipettes but at the same time almost falling over itself to show you a good time.
This might be a bit of a cheat, because technically, the album Rabbit Fur Coat is by Jenny Lewis and The Watson Twins, rather than Lewis as solo artist, but it’s just too beautiful a track for me to pass on.
Plus, it allows me to explain a series of musical connections. Jenny Lewis is a member of Rilo Kiley, as well as a solo artist. Rilo Kiley are on the same label as Death Cab For Cutie, which is how Death Cab’s Ben Gibbard came to be contacting Lewis to ask her if she fancied providing some vocals for The Postal Service, an honour or favour that Gibbard returned on Lewis’ cover of the Travelling Wilbury’s song “Handle With Care”.
Lewis has also recorded as Jenny and Johnny with her husband, Jonathan Rice. Rice has worked with, among others, Elvis Costello. Guess who has also worked with Costello? Yeah, that’d be Jenny.
Sometimes it’s hard to spot the line that divides the solo work from band material. That’s very much the case with Ben Gibbard, who lends his distinctive vocal sound to Death Cab For Cutie, and can’t really do anything about the fact that even with a bit of country-rock guitar thrown into the mix his solo material sometimes sounds a bit like a Death Cab studio out-take. Not necessarily in a bad way, you understand, just in a solidly unsurprising way. Fact is, his most arresting non-Death Cab work is the twee-beep of The Postal Service, where he is joined by Jimmy Tamborello and Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis (who might be joining this playlist any day now…).
Singers have it easy: no matter their musical direction and their travelling companions, we already know what they sound like. That thing they do? They’re still doing it, just with new friends.
Guitarists on the other hand…
It helps if you can use your solo material as a counterpoint to the band, to express the you that is usually diluted (say, Graham Coxon), or if you’ve already sung lead for the band (Mike Mills, Coxon again), or if you can wait an eternity before going properly solo (Johnny Marr). Or, as in the case of Rod Jones, you can play around with solo material for a bit without feeling any immediate impulse to release it, and then maybe if you get to the stage where you think it’s actually not half bad, you might release it. That should help listeners get over the slight sense of discontinuity when presented with something that sounds a bit like the old band, only not quite…
Of course, it also helps if it’s a pleasantly catchy number like Wonderful.
Given that the solo career tends to happen after the time spent in a band, it’s no great surprise to find that the wiser, older solo artist eschews the rough edges of his or her callow youth, unplugs the guitar (or at least dials it back down from 11), and adopts a more philosophical musical stance. Which is all the explanation you need for the difference between Roddy Woomble the folksy solo troubadour and Roddy Woomble the lead singer of Idlewild, whose music was once described as “the sound of a flight of stairs falling down a flight of stairs”.
Leaving Without Gold is somewhere between the two, very effectively acting out the role of unthreatening poppy lead single, from what I suspect might be an inexhaustible supply Woomble has stashed away in some remote Scottish highland.