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The Royal We

Zeth Lundy

Multitracked heroism or egomaniacal self-indulgence? This first of series of features on the idiosyncratic genres we invent for ourselves as listeners looks at what happens to musical geniuses when the studio becomes their most virtuosic instrument.

PopMatters Music Columns Editor

Popular music, especially its rock 'n' roll and soul derivatives, has long been a language of shared expression and compromise. Even in the recording studio, pop's power is found in and defined by the push-and-pull interaction of multiple players, the ricocheting and clashing of ideas from many distinct creative sources. How then, to explain the one-man studio album? We're not talking about acoustic guitar and vocals; we mean the one-man studio band, when an artist has it in his head to replicate the sound of a full rock band without the benefit of live musical chemistry or the bother of dissenting opinions. If you agree that the studio is a playpen for the creatively zealous, you're likely to be a champion of the solitary session man. But if you look at popular music and see communalism, you might find the whole concept of the one-man studio band a tad bit selfish. No matter where you stand, two truths hold: (1) Albums performed entirely by one person are pretty awesome to behold, especially in the moment of discovering that virtually all you're hearing (from rhythms to leads to accoutrements) stems from the same two hands; and (2) it's difficult to gauge how an album would have turned out had the contributions and input of other musicians been considered. One-man studio albums need to work twice as hard for its results to sound just as natural.

At the root of many of these solitary productions is a certain ego-helmed exhibitionist streak, a showoff air. But other motives may lie behind some of the many decisions to go it alone: Stevie Wonder, for one, saw it as symbolic of his own artistic independence following years under Motown's lock and key; Elliott Smith commented that he made albums on his own simply because he enjoyed playing all the different instruments. One doesn't have to be a Julliard-approved genius on all of the basic instruments (piano, guitar, bass, drums) to make a one-man album, but a passable level of competency helps. Wonder and Paul McCartney aren't the most incredible drummers, for example, but their respective styles suit the needs of their music. But only the true studio hounds -- those who easily relinquish daylight, sleep, and/or food in favor of the company of microphones and mixing boards -- typically make these kinds of records, for only they can put in the time and patience required. Issues of ego and control aside, the one-man band format may give us the most unobstructed view of the artist in question since he alone handles the performance, arrangement, and (often) production aspects of the project.

For the interests of this primer, a very minimal amount of guest appearances is allowed for a record to still be considered, by and large, the work of one artist. Following are 12 of the format's most memorable creations to date, listed in unbiased chronological order.

Alexander "Skip" Spence, Oar (1969, Columbia)
After an attempt to assault his Moby Grape bandmates with an ax and a subsequent stay at Bellevue Hospital for schizophrenia, Spence recorded his first and last solo album, Oar, quickly in Nashville, playing all the guitars and drums himself. In addition to being Moby Grape's guitarist, he had played drums for an early incarnation of Jefferson Airplane; nonetheless, his playing on Oar sounds as haunted and hesitant as his ravaged vocals, which adds to the album's long-running mystique. Oar has its appeal in the scheme of the late '60s folk-rock renaissance epitomized by Bob Dylan's John Wesley Harding, but it's also a polarizing effort that listeners find either moving or downright unlistenable, a precursor to future psychic fragmentations like Big Star's 3rd.

Paul McCartney, McCartney (1970, Capitol)
While Phil Spector was busy mixing Let It Be and the Beatles' breakup remained hush-hush, McCartney was splitting time between his Scotland farm and Abbey Road Studios, where he booked time clandestinely under the name Billy Martin. The result of this restless activity, his eponymous solo album, was released only one week after the Fab Four's demise was made official. With the exception of some harmony vocals by McCartney's wife Linda, McCartney is all Paul, from the sticky funk guitar riff in "Momma Miss America" to the spooky caressed crystal in "Glasses" to the 1970s power-pop-anticipating "Maybe I'm Amazed". This wasn't the first time Macca had flashed his multi-instrumental prowess; "Wild Honey Pie" was his own studio creation, and he banged out his best Ringo impression on "The Ballad of John and Yoko" and "Back in the U.S.S.R." McCartney's very concept carries the stink of wounded, impulsive rejection, but it's very much the opposite one would expect given the circumstances: effortless, raggedy, warm, and unexpectedly generous in the emotion department. No pop record has ever made a big announcement with such a vulnerable shrug.

Todd Rundgren, Something/Anything? (1972, Bearsville)
Rundgren did just about everything on Something/Anything?, his defining double album, and he did it all by himself, if you exclude the album's fourth side, recorded with a full band. On this sprawling 25-song treatise are pitch-perfect reflections of pop's many incarnations: riotous power-pop ("Couldn't I Just Tell You"), Carole King homages ("I Saw the Light"), R&B workouts ("Wolfman Jack"), and plenty of things in between, from ballads to the bizarre -- he even rerecorded his own "Hello, It's Me", a top 10 single originally performed by his old band, the Nazz, four years earlier. More technically accomplished than homespun efforts like McCartney and tenaciously ambitious, Something/Anything? became the veritable template for all high-concept one-man studio albums that would follow.

Stevie Wonder, Talking Book (1972, Tamla)
Motown's child genius not only made the one-man band format a decade-long industry, he proved time and again that the conceit could be more than a wooden novelty. There's more chemistry between Wonder's own overdubbed tracks than most bands manage to manufacture. Save for a handful of occasional guests and his engineering/synth-operating partners, Malcolm Cecil and Bob Margouleff, Wonder played all the instruments for the first half of the 1970s, hopping from keyboard to drums to synthesizer like a wizard tickled by whims. While his R&B contemporaries were busy lavishing their records with panoramic strings and session players, Wonder kept it simple on Talking Book (one of two albums he released in 1972) by reining a gaggle of jiggling synths and nasty grooves into knotty economy. Funk, soul, or pop rarely gets better than the paranoid locomotive "Superstition", and blissed-out exercises in transcendent repetition like "I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)" deftly stitch sentimentality with brute physicality.

Shuggie Otis, Inspiration Information (1974, Epic)
Luaka Bop's 2001 reissue of Inspiration Information may have evoked a gushing revisionist's appraisal of Otis's overlooked fourth and final album (it's less a "timeless" masterpiece and more a multihued barometer of its time), but it's worth knowing all the same. Otis, the son of bandleader Johnny Otis, was known primarily as a guitarist of exceptional skill and surprising youth -- he once turned down an offer to replace Mick Taylor in the Rolling Stones. This album, on which Otis handles multi-instrumental duties except for horns and strings, has the stamp of an exploratory rocker with visions of jazz and fusion in his head, as noodling songs like "Island Letter" and "Rainy Day" demonstrate. When Otis lets his pop sensibilities rule, as in the sweetly AM-radio-ready title track, he zones into a Bill Withers-esque R&B mode that trumps his otherwise lite fusion adventures.

Prince, Dirty Mind (1980, Warner Bros.)
To a certain degree, Prince picked up where Wonder left off in the late 1970s as the new one-man R&B architect. The most obvious difference between the two was in how they handled sex: Prince's subject matter and aesthetics -- like a synthetic re-imagining of Marvin Gaye's Let's Get It On -- were far more explicit than Wonder ever preferred to be. Dirty Mind is one of his early sexual...err...climaxes, so to speak, a compact little record that very much delivers on its title. His self-made funk parades are so polished, so unblemished, so exaggeratingly taut that they should arrive shrink-wrapped in plastic. If it weren't for Prince's aching, ecstasy-trafficking falsetto, Dirty Mind could be mistaken as a clinical, computerized approximation of physical contact. In fact, the name of Prince's game was restraint: though he could play all of the instruments, he did so in humble doses, a multitracker of the barest necessities and minutest of pleasures.

Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Johnny "Guitar" Watson and the Family Clone (1981, DJM)
In the 1970s, Watson made a sudden stylistic U-turn, trading in his blues guitar slinging for sleek excursions into funky territory. (He marketed his embrace of contemporary R&B with gung-ho fervor, as his albums from 1977 attest: A Real Mother for Ya and Funk Beyond the Call of Duty.) Even weirder was Johnny "Guitar" Watson and the Family Clone, an album of soft-focus funkiness he made entirely on his own. It very well could be the sound of 1970s funk losing its mind -- not chaotically but with pleasant disorientation. Sometimes the music thinks it's jazz; other times it's hot-buttered disco soul, or maybe even an oily slick of easy listening. Multiple personalities all vie for the same personality (the many voices of Watson crowding "Family Clone") and occasionally split entirely from the fold (the slo-mo vocoder lead in "Come and Dance With Me"). Two decades later, it remains a prime example of eccentricity at its grooviest.

Fear of Pop, Fear of Pop Volume I (1998, 550 Music)
Ben Folds's experimental side project, probably one of the most bizarre ever to be okayed by the major-label brass, is best-known for William Shatner's reprisal of his old Transformed Man monologist on the painfully ironic "In Love". That's merely the start of it. Fear of Pop's got cheese-tastic themes to nonexistent cop shows ("Kops"), brazen pieces of vocal-chord-shredding paranoia ("Fear of Pop"), and most incredibly, a fierce Prodigy-esque rhythm monster propelled by Folds's massive drum track ("Root to This"). Only clout bought by a hit single as big as Ben Folds Five's "Brick" could assure that such an unapologetic, fun mess would see the light of day. Folds would return to the one-man method on 2001's Rockin' the Suburbs, but Fear of Pop remains a rare, uncompromised idiosyncrasy that would stick out like a sore thumb in any artist's catalog.

Elliott Smith, XO (1998, Dreamworks)
Smith's leap to a major label no doubt alarmed the purists who passionately guarded his punk-hearted folk; after all, he had been recording for Kill Rock Stars, whose name alone seemed a refutation of Dreamworks right to exist. XO may have boasted a bigger budget and higher profile, but it put fears to rest in the course of its creative watershed: from the breathtaking pop explosion of "Sweet Adeline" all the way through the elaborate vocal harmonies of the a cappella closer "I Didn't Understand", this was an uncommonly rich experience that caught the anticipatory enthusiasts off-guard. Though he had been playing all of the instruments on his albums for a few years (most extensively on 1997's Either/Or), Smith had never played with such assurance or liberally overdubbed with such hunger for possibility. Moments of Kinks bounce, Beach Boys beauty, and Beatles ingenuity abound, teaching the indie crowd that pop isn't a dirty word after all.

Jason Falkner, Can You Still Feel? (1999, Elektra)
Following the breakups of his early 1990s bands Jellyfish and the Grays (fellow one-man-bander Jon Brion was also a member of the latter), Falkner embarked on a solo career to distance himself from the sometimes unfulfilling band experience. Nigel Godrich, the UK producer best known for his work with Radiohead and Beck, coproduced Feel, Falkner's sophomore album, a collection of arena-size ringers that shine like Badfinger or the Cars with dazzling California-kissed addendums. As a player, Falkner has an unusually skilled grasp on every instrument -- in fact, you'd swear his records were comprised of four or five of L.A.'s finest session musicians, not just one of them. Beyond the habitually astounding instrumental endowment, Can You Still Feel? succeeds as a remarkably cohesive pop record; Falkner and Godrich's collaboration yields a rich musical experience with skyscraping highs.

Jon Brion, Meaningless (2000, Straight to Cut-Out)
The lone solo album from multi-instrumentalist producer, composer, session man, and all-around L.A. legend Brion is probably the least-known project he's worked on. Originally scheduled for a major-label release on Atlantic Records, Meaningless was repeatedly delayed for three years until Brion bought it back and released it independently. When the record finally surfaced, it did so nondescriptly: pale-blue cover, self-deprecating title and tongue-in-cheek label name, discreet distribution. (It continues to only be available at his live shows or online at CDBaby.) It remains one of the decade's finest (and ignored) pop albums, one that marries McCartney's melodic grace with Randy Newman's caustic subversion ("Ruin My Day"), hides jokes in the crevices of carnival pop ("Walking Through Walls"), and deconstructs its obvious influences (the dreamlike cover of Cheap Trick's "Voices"). Brion's musical expertise is no secret, and his playing on Meaningless is tasteful throughout, from the fuzzy guitar leads and brisk pianos to his own rock-solid rhythm section. Even better: Brion's weekly show at L.A.'s Largo club is a live recreation of the one-man method with full instrumentation and loops.

Kelley Stoltz, Below the Branches (2006, Sub Pop)
Stoltz's solo career has been self-made on the cheap: his debut, The Past Was Faster (1999), was done on a four-track; its follow-up, Antique Glow (2003), on an eight-track. His latest, Below the Branches, continues in a typically homemade vein, even if he now welcomes more guest players to the fold. Stoltz's production style is charmingly lo-fi, full of thuddy drums, booming pianos, and very few extravagant distractions. It doesn't hurt, either, that his original songs are seemingly plucked from the consciousnesses of heavy-hitters like Brian Wilson ("Ever Thought of Coming Back") and Ray Davies ("Memory Collector"). Stoltz's cozy manner is more McCartney than Falkner, a choice that warmly complements his melody-driven living room pop.

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