The need for a constructive and creative break from the strictures of a bill-paying ‘day-job’ has spawned the beginnings of innumerable bands. But what if your band has become the ‘day-job’? Well, then maybe you require an old-fashioned side-project to let steam off outside the confines of democratic compromise or to tackle something your regular enterprise isn’t so pre-disposed to exploring. Here are three distinctive examples of artists self-diverting themselves away from their established norm.
Dean & Britta/Andy Warhol – 13 Most Beautiful… Songs For Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests (Plexifilm, DVD)
As an eminent manipulator of multi-platform artistry, the late Andy Warhol would hopefully have approved of Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips being commissioned to construct bespoke backing tracks for 13 of his semi-legendary silent ‘Screen Tests’ – pooled from a library of the 500 or so shot between 1964 and 1966. Since the disbandment of Luna in 2005, the duo have certainly crossed many multimedia waters with relative ease; releasing their excellent Back Numbers LP and several related singles/EPs, contributing to several films scores and tribute albums, launching Wareham’s must-read Black Postcards autobiography and establishing Double Feature Records to reissue their own L’Avventura album along with launching new records form Cheval Sombre and The Sand Pebbles. The marriage of these slow-mo single-face/single-camera ‘portrait’ films to Dean & Britta’s pensive art-pop is one almost made in heaven. These grainy black and white relics – featuring Factory acolytes (Edgie Sedgewick, Billy Name), musicians (Lou Reed, Nico), actors (Dennis Hopper, Richard Rheem) and virtual unknowns (Anna Buchanan) – would soon wear holes of pretentious tedium into the eyes were it not for the newly-attached audio to bring them to serene and sometimes borderline-supernatural life.
Mixing-up reworked material from the first two Dean & Britta long-players and lesser-known cuts from Luna’s twilight-years, new songs/instrumentals and some connoisseur-chosen covers, Wareham and Phillips have fashioned 13 blissfully-measured pieces that both celebrate the cinematic snapshots as well as transcend them. The supremely affecting opening combination of the motionless yet bewitching Anna Buchanan and a remoulded wordless version of the twosome’s own “Singer Sing” sets the bar exceeding high from the very start. Elsewhere, the subterranean twang of “Silver Factory Theme” is the near-perfect foil to Billy Name’s steely shades-concealed gazing; the Phillips-sung take on Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Keep It With Mine” brings some genuine warmth to Nico’s icy demeanour; the electro burbling of “Richard Rheem’s Theme” is wonderfully-fitted to its named protagonist’s android-like glaring; and the previously bootleg-only Velvet Underground rarity “Not A Young Man Anymore” rescued to accompany Lou Reed, is a chugging pleasure that should enrapture VU and Luna fanatics alike. In less capable hands this a venture that could have only found favour amongst chin-stroking ‘art-installation’ circles and just frustrated music-lovers. But the fact that 13 Most Beautiful… resolutely welcomes repeated viewing and listening confirms that it is a treasure, not a chore. That said; the soundtrack itself unquestionably warrants a standalone release – should contractual legalities allow – as a vinyl-only affair wrapped in suitably elaborate Warholian packaging.
Condo Fucks – Fuckbook (Matador, CD/LP/download)
Yo La Tengo’s large body of work is no stranger to detours from the rotas of regular album releases. In the last decade or so alone, Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew have plugged interim gaps in the recorded YLT catalogue through collaborations (such as 1998′s Strange But True LP with Jad Fair), innumerable film scores (some of which were collected on last year’s tremendous They Shoot, We Score mini-anthology) and a compendium of improvised covers culled from their regular songs-by-listeners-request fundraiser for New Jersey’s WFMU radio station (2006′s somewhat aptly-named Yo La Tengo Is Murdering The Classics). This new diversion – under the Condo Fucks pseudonym – is certainly the silliest and possibly most unnecessary one yet. Partly designed as a gnarly garage-rock riposte to 1990′s covers-heavy folk-pop set Fakebook, this gathering of sub-rehearsal-room fidelity reinterpretations – roughly-torn from the songbooks of The Troggs, The Beach Boys, The Kinks, The Small Faces, Slade and others – occasionally amuses but largely collapses beneath the weight of one lumbering in-joke. So whilst The Small Faces’ “What’cha Gonna Do About It” benefits from a muddy Stooges-like stomping makeover and the savage surf-guitar mangling of The Beach Boys’ instrumental “Shut Down Part 2″ provides the most discernable tune, the bulk of the rest merely grates the ears with inaudible vocals and boring clattering. Admittedly, Fuckbook was never intended to be taken seriously or be measured credibly against Yo La Tengo’s gem-packed past – it even bears the sleeve sticker “This is not the new Yo La Tengo album” – but it’s unlikely that many would give it any benefit of the doubt without the trio’s prior good reputation. Ultimately, this should have been left in the archives for self-indulgent amusement, especially when far better wares – like the group’s near-peerless John Peel sessions – remain officially unreleased. For very-patient fans only.
Glen Johnson - Details Not Recorded (Make Mine Music, CD)
Given that Glen Johnson has been the only constant member and primary songwriter of the forever-revolving Piano Magic since 1996, as well as the brains behind electronica offshoots Textile Ranch and Future Conditional, it seems a little strange that he belatedly felt the need to release a solo-monikered ‘debut’ in the shape of Details Not Recorded. In an email to this writer, Johnson suggested that the unmasked nom de plume isn’t a delayed bout of egotism but more an impatient/logistical move with largely unintended extra by-products; “I’m probably too prolific for my own good. The songs on the solo album were written and recorded when Piano Magic was on hiatus. Some of them most likely could’ve been on a Piano Magic record but I was just too impatient to wait for us to get going again as a band. Even so, in some ways, I think I’ve kicked open a few new doors…” Indeed, although the lyrical content remains reliably built on the brand of bleak romanticism that Morrissey long ago switched for butch bravado, aesthetically Details Not Recorded adds several different outfits to Johnson’s wardrobe and re-tailors others.
So there’s much less of the ‘band-sound’ that has permeated many of Piano Magic’s latter-day wares with rippling Durutti Column guitars and prowling Joy Division low-end rhythm sections. Instead, Johnson has rewound from such late-70s/early-80s influences; to the mid-70s analogue-synth ambience of Kraftwerk’s Radio-Activity and Trans-Europe Express LPs (for the likes of “Brilliant Ships” and “I Know You Know My Name”), into the late-1960s/early-70s realms of Leonard Cohen’s Songs From A Room and Songs of Love And Hate (“My Horror Mask” and “A Pause In The Night”) and way back to quasi-medieval folk baroque (“Desiderata”). Consequently, there’s an electro-acoustic intimacy that further extends Johnson’s already autographical literary prose into captivating and occasionally chilling extremes. The core songs are even more terrifically-twisted paeans of bittersweet obsession (“My hands are small but careful/I’d trace your map of bone/Slowly chart the latitudes/As sculptors sculpt the stone”), searing self-deprecation (“My voice is but a sigh/My words are but an act/The one who leads the way/Is leading from the back”), lacerating loathing (“I don’t like when you cry on the pillow/I don’t like what I see in your eyes”) and self-imposed solitude (“Oh, won’t you keep it down?/I want a quiet life/I’m tired of the sound/I’m tired of the light”).
Overall, the distance from Piano Magic’s idioms, although strikingly impressive, isn’t too disconcertingly vast. Which is a reassuringly good thing of course, given that there remains supportive space for both familiar collaborators (Angèle David-Guillou of Klima, David Sheppard from State River Widening/Phelan Sheppard and Piano Magic percussionist Jerome Tcherneyan) and new ones (Willard Grant Conspiracy’s Josh Hillman and Keiron Phelan, also from State River Widening et al.). Furthermore, Johnson’s Bernard Sumner-like tones continue to sustain a deliciously deadpan presence throughout. Followers of past Piano Magic spell-casting should be pleased with this diagonal step out from the discography, whilst the previously unhypnotised may find a new route into an infatuation with a continuously impressive songwriter still content to skulk around in his own mercurial shadow.