Leaving a position as the primary crooner of a rock band to pursue a solo career as a “singer-songwriter” is a tricky business that only a privileged few can pull off with finesse. If you front a good band that has achieved even moderate success, its a tempting thing to do, especially if you are the kind of individualistic multi-tasker that likes to have a hand in every single aspect of a making a record. And what musician who has even an ounce of self-confidence (and the better part of them have a few gallons at least) hasn’t thought that they could achieve even greater heights if they could skip the whole collaboration thing and call all the shots when songwriting? But what most musicians don’t realize is that although many bands do very well to have a prolific singer that has enough charisma and skill to shoulder the responsibility of being the band’s most visible member, these same qualities can easily be transformed into liabilities without the rest of the band to temper them. Sometimes this problem is purely a matter of ego. The same cool assuredness that makes Mr. or Ms. Frontperson so captivating in front of a band can appear cloying and cocky when flying solo. Such a phenomenon can be seen when looking at the career of Ryan Adams for example, who went from being an endearingly depressed country kid in Whiskeytown to an irritatingly depressed pop panderer once he left his band behind him to go it alone. Evan Dando is another in this category of musicians who are much more palatable when they have solid bandmates to anchor their feet to the ground.
Inflated egos, however, are not the only reason that pursing a solo career is a venture so fraught with potential pitfalls. For, even more common than the egomaniac who finally admits that they aren’t willing to share the attention is the lead singer who uses their solo career to unleash all of the bottled up sentimentality that they’ve been shoring up for all those years of playing in the band. Paul McCartney is the most obvious of these cases. He’s pure genius when his nearly perfect pop sensibility is paired with John Lennon’s bittersweet and experimental songwriting. But left to his own devices, he comes up with something like “The Long and Winding Road”. To his credit, he also came up with the heartbreakingly sweet “Yesterday”, but that’s only because he’s Paul freaking McCartney and his hits more than make up for his misses. But the point here is that even for a guy who was in one of the greatest bands in all of rock history, solo songwriting can be a one-way ticket to a syrupy sentimentality that only sappy teenage girls and nostalgic baby boomers can stand.
Graig Markel, the former lead singer for Seattle-based punk-pop band New Sweet Breath, seems like a victim of the latter phenomenon at times. Whereas his soft, breathy voice and angular guitar worked beautifully within the framework of the band’s perky yet jaded pop, Markel on his own plays fast and loose with the heartstrings, frequently luxuriating in that dangerous space between being sincere and just plain embarrassing. This has been true of his three previous records, and, unfortunately, it is also true of his newest project, Tall Tales on Tape, out on Sonic Boom Recordings. While most of the time he steers more towards a level of songwriting that maintains a compelling balance between confession and detachment, there are moments when the combination of his emotionally bare lyrics and his soulful singing veer towards a realm best left to avowed easy-listing sap like Aaron Neville or Bryan Adams.
But that is not to say that the album is without considerable merits. Though cringe inducing, Markel’s moments of hyper-senitimentalism are few and far between, and the music that lies between then is uniformly good. Like his previous record, The Gospel Project, Tall Tales is a moody, meandering collection of finely crafted songs. Influenced equally by ‘70s-era soul and Elliot Smith-style pop, Markel’s tunes ease you into a low-blood pressure world where heartbreak is always right behind you or just around the corner. As a former Seattlite, my favorite aspect of Markel’s songwriting has always been his ability to evoke the imagery of the Pacific Northwest in his music. Listening to a gorgeously understated song like “Black and White and Numb All Over”, I can’t help but think about driving on a winding mountain road, evergreens towering up to a cloudy sky the color of milk. “Saturday Nigh Fractures” is similarly a gem, starting out thick with distorted drum and bass and opening up to a drowsy, pop-driven melody whose layers become more and more intricate as the song progresses. “The Year 3000 is Ahead” offers a wry meditation on his musical and personal evolution, opening up with the lines “The year 3000’s just ahead / Disco is nearly dead / I won a free trip to Club Med / And gave away my indie cred”. The last song on the record, “Your Favorite Colors”, is a nice showcase for Markel’s amazingly versatile voice, slipping in and out of a ringing falsetto with a graceful ease that would make even the most seasoned chanteur green with envy.
As this is Markel’s fourth album since going solo, he is pretty firmly embedded in the genre of singer-songwriter by now. And, altogether, this is a good thing. Although he sometimes falls victim to the temptation of oversentimentality, he has managed the transition to a solo career with many of his best qualities intact. His voice is golden and his songs are sad and consistently melodic without being formulaic. However, one can’t help but wish that one day he’d add his considerable talents to a collective project once again, just for the sake of stirring up the mix and adding a little variety to his heartfelt tunes.