Alien and Yet Familiar

This post is about side projects. It’s going to seem like it’s about live music, but it’s really not. Were I a better writer, I would be able to figure out how to weave the two topics together more elegantly. I’m not a better writer though, so just remember this is about side projects.

I have seen a pretty good amount of live music in my life. Mostly rock shows, but other genres, too. I have watched all types of people put on all types of concerts, and the only thing I can say that was common to every single concert was that it looked exhausting.

Touring musicians play for anywhere from one to four hours, scream and sweat all over the stage, thank the audience, and then do it again and again and again and again for months. If I were a touring musician, I think I would last maybe a month before the whole thing felt like work instead of fun. I would quit so quickly. By contrast, there are artists who have been sleeping on a bus for 50 years and still find the energy to make thousands of other people happy every single night.

Here’s a good example of how “the road” would ruin me. About a month and a half ago, I went to Asheville, North Carolina with a friend to see a Wilco/Sleater-Kinney double bill. The plan was to see that show on August 17th, hang out in Charlotte, North Carolina for a couple days, and then drive to Baltimore on the weekend to see the same Wilco/Sleater-Kinney double bill again on August 20th. There was a heavy storm in Asheville on the night of the 17th, though, so the show was rescheduled for August 19th, the day before the Baltimore show.

My friend and I were determined not to waste either of our tickets, so we rearranged our Airbnb, saw the show in Asheville on the 19th, woke up early on the 20th, dragged our hungover carcasses into the car, and hoofed it 7 hours or so back to Baltimore. We were completely burnt out and delirious by the time we made it to my Baltimore apartment, but we got to the next show successfully.

You know who else had to wake up early and drive 7 hours or so from Asheville to Baltimore for the Wilco/Sleater-Kinney double bill? Wilco and Sleater-Kinney! And they were actually playing the show. The whole thing struck me as insane. Our experience felt like a saga in and of itself, and it was just 5 percent of what those bands would go through on their tour. Not only did they not seem tired in the slightest on stage, they actually seemed to have way more energy than my friend and I did. Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney actually watched the Wilco show from the side of the stage after their set, even though they had already been on tour with them for over two weeks at that point. Incredible. I would have been asleep on the tour bus.

I said about 450 words ago that this post was about side projects, and it still is. For the unacquainted, a side project is when a musician is still in their primary band, but puts out an album under a different name anyway. Normally artists don’t tour behind these projects. They are usually created between tours of the main band, or while the main band is recording a new project, too. They are also generally less successful than their main band’s albums in terms of pure sales. Unfortunately, fewer people hear them.

Here’s what I love so much about side projects: these musicians, frankly, have a more physically demanding job than any of us will have in our entire lives, and in between that they still find time to explore new creative outlets. Doing so can only mean that they love music so much that their job is also their hobby. I think that comes out in the music, too, and listening to side projects is a reminder that music is supposed to make everyone involved happy, and it’s pretty cool when it does.

Jerry Garcia, in his 30 years as founder and frontman of the Grateful Dead, made songs that quite literally inspired people to live their entire lives following a music act. What’s his favorite album he ever released? His Jerry Garcia Band side project album, Cats Under the Stars. “As far as I’m concerned, Cats Under the Stars is my most successful record–even though it’s my least successful record!” Garcia said. “I’ve always loved it an it just never went anywhere.”

That’s what the side project is all about.

Here are six side projects you should check out.

Martin Courtney- Many Moons (2015)

Main Band: Real Estate

Martin Courtney is a founder of Real Estate, who are known for their jangly, arpeggiated guitars. They’re almost uncommonly pleasant to listen to. Courtney keeps that trend up with Many Moons, which has guitar lines and layered harmonies that are every bit as good as Real Estate’s best songs.

Three Tracks to Check Out: “Vestiges”; “Northern Highway”; “Little Blue”

Lotus Plaza- Spooky Action at a Distance (2012)

Main Band: Deerhunter

Deerhunter is definitely a collaborative effort, but if someone were to ask whose band it is, the answer would invariably be lead singer and primary songwriter Bradford Cox. Lotus Plaza is not a side project of Bradford Cox, but rather a side project of Lockett Pundt, Deerhunter’s lead guitarist. Pundt takes a more direct approach on “Spooky Action at a Distance” than Deerhunter ever had to this point in their career. Deerhunter, along with a band soon to be mentioned, were the forerunners of the 2000s psychedelic movement, and their music was extremely catchy but also fairly esoteric. Pundt keeps the reverb and the interesting outros from Deerhunter’s catalog but creates a brighter and less nocturnal sound.

Three Tracks to Check Out: “Strangers”; “Jet Out of the Tundra”; “Eveningness”

Deakin- Sleep Cycle (2016)

Main Band: Animal Collective

Here’s that other band that was a 2000s psychedelic pioneer. Animal Collective’s two most famous members–by far–are Avey Tare and Panda Bear, each of whom have had wildly successful solo careers outside of Animal Collective. Deakin is neither of those people, but for my money this is the best Animal Collective side project. It’s a perfect blend of acoustic folk music and psychedelic synthesizer atmosphere. The songs, most of which are over 6 minutes, seamlessly change shape and form, and they end up feeling much shorter than they are as a result.

Three Tracks to Check Out: “Golden Chords”; “Just Am”; “Good House”

Dukes of Stratosphear- Chips From the Chocolate Fireball (1987)

Main Band: XTC

Is this a proper side project? I’m unsure. The situation is this: all the members of XTC created this album under a different band name in order to explore a different musical style than they usually did. I think that counts, actually. XTC makes very weird, very catchy new wave music, and Dukes of Stratosphear make very weird, very catchy psychedelic music. XTC said their idea was to recreate the psych records of the 1960s that they loved so much, and for the most part they used vintage recording equipment to get the sound as close to the 60s as possible. It worked and then some, as this is a perfect combination of 7 or 8 different psych-pop legends. Try to tell me “Brainiac’s Daughter” doesn’t sound like a lost Paul McCartney song.

Three Tracks to Check Out: “Vanishing Girl”; “Collideascope”; “Brainiac’s Daughter”

Loose Fur- Loose Fur (2003)

Main Bands: Wilco and Jim O’Rourke

Sorry to talk about Wilco so much. That’s two posts in a row. Next time, no Wilco (maybe). Anyway, Loose Fur is a cool side project from Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche, and Jim O’Rourke, who is a multi-instrumentalist who’s been involved in a million different bands. He played instruments and helped produce Wilco’s most experimental and critically acclaimed albums “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” and “A Ghost is Born,” and Loose Fur is definitely in the mold of those two albums. The songs have a looser feel than the songs on those albums, though, which is fitting given the name of the band.

Three Tracks to Check Out: “Laminated Cat”; “You Were Wrong”; “Chinese Apple”

Traveling Wilburys- The Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1 (1988)

Main Bands (Really Main Artists): George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison

I guess this is more of a supergroup than a side project, but I’m going to count it, because the existence of The Traveling Wilburys is proof of my argument that side projects are awesome because they show how much musicians love making music. All five of these guys had very lengthy careers at the time this album came out. The “newest” guy, Petty, had been putting out albums for over a decade. I don’t think anyone would have blamed any of these guys for hanging up their rock n’ roll shoes and retiring from the life completely. Instead, they made this album, and frankly they sound like they’re having more fun than they’d had in years. I can’t confirm that, but Harrison’s main criterion for adding a band member is he had to enjoy hanging out with them. They also gave each other fake nicknames: Petty was Charlie T. Wilbury, Orbison was Lefty Wilbury, etc. These guys should have been grumpy, over the hill old men, but that doesn’t sound grumpy to me. Long live the side project.

Three Tracks to Check Out: “End of the Line”; “Handle With Care”; “Tweeter and the Monkey Man”

Let Him Have My Seat

Nashville Skyline by Bob Dylan, 1969

Without looking it up, I’d guess that Bob Dylan is the most written about rock musician who ever lived. There’s nothing at all that I can add to the conversation about Bob Dylan–50,000,000 people smarter and more informed than I am have already shaped the consensus around Dylan’s life’s work.

Dylan is my favorite musician of all-time, though, and I think the consensus’ reaction to Nashville Skyline–and album I like a whole lot–is very, very wrong. And I think it’s wrong for the same reason I think consensus on a lot of other albums is wrong.

The Consensus

The consensus is that Dylan was at the peak of his artistic creativity from around 1964-1966, then changed styles in 1967 with John Wesley Harding, and by 1969, with Nashville Skyline’s release, he had lost the magic.

What’s the main issue with Nashville Skyline, according to critics? Too happy. The albums is full of short country tunes about quiet life, and the critics weren’t having it. I was looking at the album’s Wikipedia page a couple days ago and saw two quotes which captures the consensus pretty well. The first is from a guy named Tim Souster from the BBC, who said “one can’t help feeling something is missing. Isn’t this idyllic country landscape too good to be true?” The second is from Ed Ochs at Billboard, who said “the satisfied man speaks in cliches, and blushes as if every day were Valentine’s Day.”

The bizarre thing is that, from what I can tell, people had no issue with how the album actually sounded. It was just too optimistic for someone like the sarcastic, energetic, confrontational Dylan to write. I think Nashville Skyline sums up one of my least favorite parts about rock criticism: rock critics absolutely love it when supposed “ambitious” musicians are miserable, and they don’t know what to do with themselves when the artist presents them with something that isn’t miserable.

The Tunes

It’s a shame, too, because if people just took Dylan at face value, they’d have a way better time. The songs sound really good! Dylan’s slow duet with Johnny Cash on “Girl From the North Country” is way better than the faster, finger-picked version Dylan recorded six years earlier. The way the piano and guitar play off each other on “To Be Alone With You” is really fun, and the organ in the background of “I Threw It All Away” is a genius production move. “Lay, Lady, Lay” is one of Dylan’s more famous songs, and it definitely deserves to be. It’s one of his best vocal performances, and whatever kind of percussion is going on during the verses is so strange and cool. “Tell Me That It Isn’t True” has a catchy organ riff that leads most of the song, and then ends with a descending piano riff that’s completely addicting. Every time I listen to the song, I listen to the last 20 seconds three or four times at least.

The last song on the album is the most obvious statement on Dylan’s happiness. “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” has lyrics like “throw my troubles out the door/I don’t need them anymore” and “if there’s a poor boy on the street/then let him have my seat/’cause tonight I’ll be staying here with you.” I’m sure this is the kind of song Souster had in mind when he assumed the “idyllic country landscape” Dylan had created was “too good to be true.” It was 1969. There was a lot of horrible shit going on! Dylan can’t possibly be happy about the state of the world! I’m willing to accept the premise that Dylan actually wasn’t happy around this period of his life, because how the fuck am I supposed to know what he actually feels inside? So, sure, assume the whole album is a facade for Dylan’s crippling sadness and anger. How does that make the music any different? Why should I be dissatisfied with the album because Dylan is lying? He’s the most notorious liar in the history of modern music. It’s like 40 percent of the reason I like listening to his music so much. The obvious conclusion is critics didn’t like the happy Dylan, whether it was the real thing or not.

But Who Cares?

I think expecting “high art” to be miserable is a horrible way to listen to music, and unfortunately that type of thinking has survived to this day. Take Rob Mitchum’s notoriously terrible review for the album Sky Blue Sky by another one of my favorite bands, Wilco. Sky Blue Sky came out after two of Wilco’s most experimental albums, and its sound was much more straightforward than the older stuff. It’s also far less dark than the previous two Wilco albums–Wilco’s frontman Jeff Tweedy had gone to rehab and become more invested in his family life at the time of the album, and the lyrics reflected that. I think Sky Blue Sky is great. Mitchum called it “an album that exposes the dad-rock gene the band has always carried but attempted to disguise–the stylistic equivalent of a wardrobe change into sweatpants and a tank top.” The message is pretty clear. Dark and experimental, at any cost, is better and more important when it comes to art.

Sky Blue Sky by Wilco, 2007

I think the easiest way for critics to stop being so baffled by stylistic choices like Nashville Skyline or Sky Blue Sky is to stop having such ridiculous expectations for the way musicians feel at any given moment. Critics went into a panic when Dylan put out three albums worth of Christian-inspired music in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and then panic turned into even more confusion when by 1983 Dylan was hanging out with Chasidic rabbis. Critics’ attempts to decipher Dylan’s life based on what was being said in his lyrics and in his interviews distracted them from four years of really good music. Dylan put it pretty plainly in 1997, in an interview with Newsweek. “Here’s the thing with me and the religious thing…this is the flat out truth. I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don’t find it anywhere else.”

Dylan is history’s most indecipherable musician. Ultimately, I think people would be better served if they just stopped trying to decipher him. You are not his friend. You will never know him. But you can do the same thing Dylan does really easily. You can find the religiosity and the philosophy in his music, and you can find it there and only there.