[18 March 2009]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
The realm of the side-project is a very, very strange one (to say the least).
It’s almost surrealistic, as if painted by Dali: otherworldly avant-pop whims twisted around unusual instrumentation, concept albums about the very nature of music and/or fame and/or drugs (see: Frusciante’s solo output), acoustic laments detailing the bloody rawness of one’s soul, etc. Yet as stupid as some side-projects have been (Ryan Adams’ The Finger? Anyone?), every once in awhile a change in musical setting can lead an artist to create something extraordinary. Indie-rock act Death Cab for Cutie may have scored their first #1 album last year, but singer Ben Gibbard’s electro-dance Postal Service disc still stands as one of his most endearing (and successful) musical ventures. Likewise, when David Byrne was off somewhere expressing himself in 1981, fellow Talking Heads’ Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz went ahead and created the innocuously upbeat Tom Tom Club, scoring a hit that same year with the oft-sampled sugar pop gem “Genius of Love”. As long as there will be bands, there will be side-projects, and as long as there are side-projects, there exists a delightfully small little world of safe experimentation: artists able to try something drastically different and new without fear of losing their day jobs as radio hitmakers.
Enter the Secret Dakota Ring.
Andy Ross, when not playing keyboards for power-pop maestros OK Go, has this nice little thing going with the frightfully-fun (but terribly-named) Secret Dakota Ring. Consisting of just him and drummer Travis Harrison (with guests), the SDR put out a well-produced, remarkably strong lo-fi basement-pop album in 2004 called Do Not Leave Baggage All the Way. Though none of the songs would be competing for radio programming slots with his regular band, it was still a nice, cozy little gem of a disc. With this year’s Cantarell, however, Ross has decided to completely reinvent the Ring into an even grittier, more vulnerable, and far more adventurous outfit for his non-alternative rock musings.
Opening with the swirling, darting (and surprisingly sorrowful) string sections of “They Got the Wrong Guy”, Ross makes it clear from the get-go that Cantarell isn’t just something he does on weekends for fun: this is a fully-fledged band in its own right. Though the “Wrong Guy” opens the disc with a surprisingly sad note, the following song—“The Fade to Black”—is an absolute joy: the strings are back, but they’re now accompanied by rolling piano licks, a rubbery bassline, and catchy sing-along vocals, resulting in an old-school, throwback kind of pop song that accomplishes its simple goal of doing nothing more than putting a smile on your face. This is the song that you talk about when you tell your friends just how good this whole “indie-pop” thing is—and yes, it’s really that infectious.
Truth be told, when you have an instantly accessible, infinitely repeatable song like “The Fade to Black” on the front end of your disc, topping it would be pretty hard to do, though at least Ross tries to one-up himself for the rest of Cantarell, often in different, unexpected ways. “I Blew Myself Up Over You” uses alt-country inflections to buoy its Fountains of Wayne-styled chord progressions, “Sell Us a Spaceship” finds keyboard harmonies colliding with guitar licks amidst layers of thick shoegaze fuzz, and “I Don’t Wanna Know About My City” rolls along like a song that you’d play at a hipster-friendly campfire late in a summer night. Ross really does try whatever he feels like over the course of Cantarell, but his ambition is no match for his brevity: this little slice of underground genre-hopping barely clocks in at a half-hour runtime—a smart move that immediately frowns upon the notion of indulging one’s self by means of wasting a listener’s time.
Yet the biggest, strangest difference between Ross’ two SDR records is how, oddly, he appears to have lost confidence in his singing voice. Whereas his first album featured it right alongside his numerous instrumental flourishes, he seems to have settled into a reedy warble this time around, his words mixed down to the point where they’re hard to really focus on during all of his playful musical tinkering. Often touching on thoughts of unrequited love, Ross’ lyrics are poetic yet simple, often relying on clichés but not to the point where you get the idea that his lyrical stance is naïve:
Early morning, the light hits the floor
And it scatters all over the place
I’m still awake when the key hits the door
And it’s pretty clear looking at my face
That each day’s worse than the one right before
And I know it’s not what we planned (“Still Awake”)
With his voice being as de-emphasized as it is in the album’s mix, Ross’ lyrics are never given a proper chance to stand out amidst his melodic romping about, but at least he—during the times you actually focus on what he’s saying—doesn’t disappoint in brain food department.
Not every track is brilliant (the 92 seconds of the keyboard-heavy “Elephants” feels much longer than it actually is), but Cantarell‘s hits outweight its misses by a large margin. Like most side-projects, there’s a very good, very real chance that this album will be forgotten in just a few months time. Unlike most side-projects, however, it would be a damn shame if that happened, because Cantarell is one of those unexpected, pleasing moments of pop joy that blindsides you out of left-field: an album that assumes nothing and then somehow accomplishes more than it has any right to. What a treat.