Solos and Sides

Screen Shot 2016-05-13 at 4.07.37 PMTalk about staying power! Singer and songwriter Dion  (DiMucci), the original wanderer, has been at it steadily since the late 1950s, as the leader of doo-wop group Dion & The Belmonts and later as a prolificsolo artist. On New York Is My Home (Instant), Dion continues his ongoing exploration of the blues over the course of eight originals, as well as a Lightning Hopkins cover. The album’s best (and least bluesy) tune is the title cut, a duet with Paul Simon, that has the potential to become a hit.

The city of Chicago (and its suburbs) had a lot to live down following the `70s and `80s domination by schlock rock bands such as Chicago (the band) and Styx. Thankfully, the `90s brought about a fresh new wave of acts such as Smashing Pumpkins, Liz Phair, Veruca Salt and others. This burst of creative energy continued into the 21st century in Chicago with Kanye West, Fall Out Boy and The Fiery Furnaces. Eleanor Friedberger  of The Fiery Furnaces has been on a solo path since the release of 2011’s marvelous Last Summer. Backed up by the band Icewater on her latest solo release New View (French Kiss), Friedberger has made an album that sounds as psychedelic as the album cover looks. This is especially true of “Sweetest Girl,” “Does Turquoise Work?,” “Two Versions of Tomorrow” and “Cathy With The Curly Hair.” Also worth noting are the folky “Never Is A Long Time” and the soulful “Because I Asked You.”

Ben Folds is one of those creative people with too much talent to contain in one setting. As a member of Ben Folds Five, as a solo artist, working with a cappella groups or collaborating with writer Nick Hornby, Folds has talent to burn. So There (New West), described on the cover as “8 chamber rock songs with Music,” also includes Folds’ “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra with the Nashville Symphony conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero.” If you’re a Folds fan, all of that info doesn’t scare you off; in fact, if probably thrills you. What’s Ben up to now? Of course, he’s at the center with his piano, his pleasing singing voice and his irresistible songs, but now there are strings, woodwinds and brass. Standout numbers such as “Phone In A Pool,” “Not A Fan,” “Capable of Anything” and “Long Way To Go” would probably sound strong in almost any setting, and that speaks to Folds gifts as a songwriter and performer. The three movements of the concerto are also outstanding additions to Folds’ canon.

Rachel Taylor, formerly of He Is We, has launched her soaring solo project She Is We  with the debut album War (Vanguard). Intimate and defiant, Taylor sees these songs as a way of making fans who may only know her from her previous outfit aware of who she truly is as an artist and a person. In case you didn’t get it from the title, She Is We is geared for battle. Taylor sings “Fear has gone away,” on opener “Boomerang,” wailing as confidently as Pink. That song certainly sets the tone for what follows on “Better Now,” “Monster,” “Fight For Me,” and the Alanis Morissette-like “Lead The Fight On.”

Shearwater, a side-project led by Okkervil River’s Jonathan Meiburg, returns with the impressively new wavy Jet Plane and Oxbow(Sub Pop), easily an early contender for one of the best albums of 2016. Stylistic avenues and shifts aside, what’s really on display here is stellar musicianship (listen to “Backchannels” and “Wildlife In America”). But it’s hard to resist the call to dance to `80s-inspired tunes such as “Quiet Americans,” “Radio Silence” and “A Long Time Away,” as well as the Death Cab For Cutie meets Bowie of “Filaments.”

As the front-man of lo-fi alternative band Grant Lee Buffalo, Grant-Lee Phillips was a musical presence throughout the 1990s. Phillips embarked on a solo career shortly after the band split up in 1999, releasing a handful of albums under his own name during the 21st century. The latest, The Narrows (Yep Roc), continues in the countrified vein of much of Phillips’ solo output.

The self-titled debut disc by Mass Gothic  (Sub Pop) veers from pleasant electro-pop to screamo to theatrical rage and back again as it progresses through 10 tracks. A solo project from Noel Heroux formerly of Hooray For Earth, Mass Gothic retains some of the synth play from his previous band while expanding in different directions. Just try not to get up and move to the aptly named, “Want To, Bad,” as well as “Pier Pressure” and “Territory,” as well as the retro pop of “Every Night You’ve Got To Save Me.” But be sure you are prepared for the extremes of “Soul” and “Nice Night.”


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