What do you do when your side-project takes on a life of its own? This has been rather a moot point for most of rock and roll history. By definition a side project is something a musician takes up on the side, whenever he’s uninvolved with his primary project. Usually they amount to nothing much, perhaps some jolly good fun for those involved and a sop to the fans of whatever the star’s main project may be, but hardly more than distraction in the scheme of things. I mean, seriously, would any but the most demented fans ever care if Power Station, the Glove or the Hindu Love Gods ever cut another disc?
But the last few years have seen an interesting reversal of the traditional side project arithmetic. Most side projects see the light of say simply because the personalities behind them have the strength to get any old vanity endeavor published—who ever asked for Mick Jagger without the rest of the Stones, besides Mick himself? Now we’ve got a handful of acts that began their life as side projects before somehow evolving into something far more involved than the primaries could have ever hoped (or even wished). The fact that the New Pornographers have stumbled along through three albums—soon to be four—is remarkable when you consider that it was initially conceived as little more than a one-off, indie, faux-Canadian Power Station. Now it’s arguably more popular as a unit than the individual careers of anyone involved, Neko Case included, and that fact exerts a strange gravity that enables the project to continue when by all rights it should have dissipated a long time ago. The Gorillaz represent probably the most unlikely chart-topping phenomenon of the decade so far, considering its provenance as a side project for Damon Albarn of Blur, hardly the most charismatic of figures—but the fact that no-one in the United States remembers who Blur is seems to have mattered not one bit. Considering just how the Gorillaz operate, it’s conceivable that most of the people who bought Demon Days may still not know who Damon Albarn is. (To his credit, Albarn seems to understand just how unlikely this second act actually was, and has gone one better by inaugurating a side project for his side project, surely a record of some kind.) And then, perhaps most unlikely of them all, we have the Postal Service, which brings us nicely to the subject of Jimmy Tamborello and Dntel.
To say that Tamborello was an unlikely candidate for indie rock superstardom is an understatement on par with the assertion that Thom Yorke is ambivalent about globalization. It’s been five years since his last album as Dntel, Life Is Full of Possibilities. In the ensuing years life has indeed proved rich in unexpected possibilities, as another side project—the Postal Service, with Death Cab For Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard—hit an unexpected nerve and went gold in the process. As awkward as this was for Gibbard, whose involvement in the Postal Service became an unanticipated distraction on the eve of Death Cab’s first foray into the realm of major label rock stardom, the situation could not have been more surreal than that faced by Tamborello. Five years ago Dntel was a small-scale electro act signed to Plug Research, home to the chart-topping likes of Venetian Snares.
Now Tamborello is signed to Sub Pop, an indie label so big that it’s not really even indie anymore. It would perhaps be unkind to ascribe this shift solely to “dumb luck”, but the fact is that no one could have reasonably anticipated the Postal Service’s success. Gibbard’s first post-Give Up Death Cab album, 2005’s Plans, doesn’t seem to have suffered overly from the comparison, but Gibbard was already an established presence in the rock world, and Death Cab a known quantity. Tamborello is an electronic musician who can’t really sing very well and prefers quiet, glitchy atmospherics to any kind of bombastic dancefloor gestures (although he did express a significantly more energetic presence on his own side project, last year’s Mistake Mistake Mistake Mistake, released under the alias James Figurine). He is about as unlikely a celebrity in today’s rock landscape as can be imagined.
Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that the overriding mood throughout Dumb Luck would prove to be quiet understatement. Having been given the unexpected opportunity to make a definitive statement as a solo artist, Tamborello shrinks away from the spotlight, filling the album with guest vocalists and supporting musicians. He seems to address these concerns on the album’s self-titled opening track:
Just don’t forget that’s it’s dumb luck that got you here, /
Don’t fool yourself, ‘cause fortune’s waiting for the best time to appear, /
To make it clear that all the courage and the talent that you have, /
Was just in dreams and when you wake up you will beg to get it back.
The music itself is deceptively lyrical, with distorted guitar riffs and synth lines dissolving into waves of feedback and cracked backing vocals. It’s a very pretty track and it certainly sets the mood for the album, even if the overriding spirit of self-derogatory pessimism seems, on reflection, less ingratiating than simply grating. Tamborello is a good musician, and this isn’t the first time throughout Dumb Luck‘s short 41 minutes that the listener wishes Tamborello would get over his neurotic feelings of inadequacy and just, you know, play a tune. The sense of understatement that carries through the album is not very far from being simply underwhelming.
That’s not to say that the album is without merits. The celebrity guests are uniformly top-notch, and often provide fire in place of Tamborello’s natural reticence. The album’s best track is probably “Rock My Boat”, with Mai Doi Todd’s graceful, controlled vocal expressing just enough tension to overcome the deceptive placidity of Tamborello’s fitfully spry rhythm. Indie stalwarts Jenny Lewis and Conor Oberst’s seemingly obligatory appearances are elevated by these artists’ respective charms into songs which could fit snugly into their own discographies. Lewis’ “Roll On” could easily have appeared on a Rilo Kiley album, acoustic guitar included, minus merely the occasional synthesized burble and keyboard filigree. Oberst’s “Breakfast In Bed” is, if anything, more restrained than his own electronic experimentations, primarily on 2005’s vastly underrated Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. Tamborello’s frankly pedestrian musical bed sits in sharp contrast to Oberst’s own robust melodic sense. The album’s most Postal Service-esque moment comes courtesy of Lali Puna, on “I’d Like to Know”—even if, it must be said, there seems something slightly self-destructive in Tamborello’s refusal to allow the strong melody to take center-stage, preferring to bury it under layers of atmosphere and distortion.
There are a handful of moments throughout Dumb Luck where Tamborello seems to forget the burden of expectations enough to overcome his natural reticence—it is somewhat unfortunate these these moments seem to come courtesy of his guests. If Tamborello was insecure of his own musical prowess before the release of Dumb Luck, the album may have the ironic effect of reinforcing his own worst impulses: as a solo artist, he makes a great collaborator.
- "Dumb Luck" MP3