(Written by Justin Peters)
In a lot of ways, the lead singer of a band is the identity of the group. They’re the voice, the face, and the personality that are most recognizable, which makes for an interesting change of pace when lead singers make music with a different group. In many cases, the identity we become so familiar with is hosted by a completely different sonic environment. Often the musical output of a singer’s side-project is more personal and less collaborative. It also allows us to get a better idea of what elements of songwriting they bring to the table with their flagship group. Here are a few great examples of the singer doing their own thing.
Thom Yorke – The Eraser
Thom Yorke fronts the genre-bending alternative outfit Radiohead. Chances are, if you have ears, you’ve heard something from them. Their decades-long career is something of a continual musical evolution, starting as a 90s BritPop band, and slowly introducing more experimentalism into their music, particularly in the form of electronic music. This track, the opener from Yorke’s first solo album, is a glimpse into the direction Radiohead was heading at the time. The almost purely-digital tracking is coupled with clean vocals, and a much less surreal set of lyrics than most of Radiohead’s catalogue. The track is beautiful and charming, and sets the tone for a pretty stellar album.
The Postal Service – Such Great Heights
Originally existing as a collaboration between Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard and producer Jimmy Tamborello, the postal service formed in 2001 after Gibbard contributed vocals to one of Tamborello’s songs released under the name Dntell. Since both half of the group was busy with their primary projects, they wrote songs by snail mailing DAT tapes back and forth. In 2003, the group (with additional appearances by Jenny Lewis) put out their only album, Give Up which featured their most popular-and most covered– track “Such Great Heights”. The song, an upbeat and optimistic message to a long-distance lover, has been featured in commercials and numerous soundtracks since its release.
Department of Eagles – No One Does it Like You
Although Department of Eagles came first, Daniel Rossen is much more heavily associated with his current band Grizzly Bear. “No One Does Like You” hails from the 2008 album In Ear Park, which features guest appearances by fellow Grizzly Bear members, Chris Bear and Chris Taylor, which leaves a very prominent Grizzly Bear-esque quality to the music. However, Department of Eagle’s music relies very heavily on samples, and this track is no exception. The drums for the track are sampled from the Ronette’s song, “You Baby”. The hook is infectious and the lilting groove makes this song remarkably catchy.
Brandon Boyd – The Wild Trapeze
I’ve been a lifelong Incubus fan. So having seen them eight times (and counting) and owning just about every album, EP, live recording, soundtrack featuring a new song of theirs (etc, etc…) any Incubus news is big news to me. Which is why when lead singer Brandon Boyd announced that he’d be releasing a solo album, I completely ate it up. Overall, the album does a nice job of straying from Incubus’s hard alt rock sound, but the absolute standout track (in my opinion) is the title track, “The Wild Trapeze”. Boyd explains that he basically had access to a studio full of instruments and complete liberty to play around with each one, which helps bring an adventuresome tone to the record. Boyd’s signature poetic lyrics paint a scene of personal journey and Americana-”Armed only with an old guitar, broken in on wit and whim, he’s becoming one”, while a rugged pulse gives the track a perfect drive.
Ramona Falls – I Say Fever
I’m going to break the rules here a little bit in that Ramona Falls isn’t exactly fronted by a lead singer. Instead, lead singer Brent Knopf was originally a member of Menomena, an experimental indie rock trio that shared singing duties as well as songwriting between each of its members quite liberally. After beginning to write his own material as Ramona Falls, Knopf eventually left Menomena to pursue the group full time. Their debut album, Intuit gives a very interesting look into Knopf’s involvement in Menomena’s songwriting, while having a wholly unique sound. “I Say Fever” is a much more aggressive and driving song than most of what Menomena had previously put out, and tends to avoid some of the more experimental elements. We’re left with a very strong rock song with a very badass video.
Gorillaz – Stylo
Gorillaz is one of the most unusual and unique groups out there, due in part to their eclectic blend of alt rock, hip hop, electronica, reggae, and pop, but mostly due to the fact that they’re a cartoon. The project exists as a collaboration of Blur’s Damon Albarn along with comic book artist Jamie Hewlett. The two formed the group in 1998 with the intention of creating a virtual band meant to criticize the direction of the music industry. Since their first record, Gorillaz, the duo has brought in dozens of well-known artists as collaborators and guest stars while also developing the narrative surrounding the fictional band members. Their 2010 album, Plastic Beach, welcomed contributions by Snoop Dogg, De La Soul, Lou Reed, and Little Dragon to name a few, while the first single, “Stylo” featured Mos Def and Bobby Womack. During the recording of the track, Bobby Womack-who was convinced to contribute by his granddaughter-unleashed a fury of improvised lyrics so aggressively, he had a diabetic attack and nearly passed out. His raw vocals lay atop an excellent electro-funky groove.
Broken Bells – The High Road
Consisting of The Shins’ James Mercer alongside producer Dangermouse, Broken Bells is a spacey, more electronic-based group than the indie rock of The Shins. At their start, the group was kept secret, though eventually was announced a few months before their debut album was released. The sound is a surprisingly cohesive blend between the two artists styles. “The High Road” was the first single off of their self-titled first album and is hypnotically catchy. Synths noodle around in the high register, while a hypnotically sexy drum beat grounds the tune. Mercer shows off his rich baritone in the earlier half of the verses, then belts out before an unbearably catchy chorus kicks in.
The Shouting Matches – I Had a Real Good Lover
Justin Vernon is best known for fronting the Grammy Award winning indie folk group Bon Iver, however the man has his fingers in more pies than just that. In between his various other projects (most notably Gayngs, and Volcano Choir), and producing in his studio in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Vernon managed to find time to strip away the lush melodies and rich orchestration, put the falsetto on the shelf, and drink a Bud heavy and play in a blues trio. The Shouting Matches is a surprisingly stark departure from what we’ve grown to recognize as a Vernon project. The music is raw, honest, and sounds a lot like three dudes playing music in a basement together, which isn’t too far off. Having released one full-length and one EP, the band very rarely plays shows, and when they do, it’s mostly small bars and clubs. In fact, there isn’t even a wikipedia page dedicated to them. The sum of these parts can be heard in the beautiful track “I Had a Real Good Lover” which does a great job showcasing Vernon’s electric guitar playing. The falsetto is still there, but it fits great in the pained blues-rock ballad.