published: 26 /
Radiohead's Thom Yorke, the Manic Street Preachers' James Dean Bradfield and Idlewild Roddy Woomble have all recently released solo albums. Ben Howarth looks at them in the latest in his 'Condemned by Rock 'n' Roll' column
It is no coincidence that the early 1970's were times both of many solo albums and of many astonishingly messy band splits, approximately half of which involved combinations of CSN&Y. Nowadays, however, the money isn’t in record sales. It is in arena tours, so bands just don’t break up any more. Look no further than REM and U2 - whose new albums are always marketed as being as good as 'Automatic'/'Joshua Tree' and never are, while their concerts are always greatest hits shows - or Echo and the Bunnymen - who probably just have nothing better to do.
So it isn’t as odd as it seems, then, that though three lead singers from three high profile British acts have released solo albums at the same time, they all remain committed to their respective groups, by which they earn a living. Thom Yorke was on tour with Radiohead as he promoted his own efforts, whilst both the Manic Street Preachers' James Dean Bradfield and Idlewild Roddy Woomble’s solo albums feature contributions from their band songwriting partner. These three 'solo' albums are just that, a diversion away from group activities by one of the group, with 'real' albums promised for 2007.
Does anybody really want to listen to solo albums? I doubt it, but that won’t stop them buying them. The coincidentally convoluting release of these albums was too good to miss, so of course many will, like me, have bought all three - this year’s equivalent, I imagine, of buying the new Supergrass and Super Furries albums together in the August of 2005, just hoping they might both be super. Thom Yorke’s album, 'The Eraser' is ‘experimental’, but - funnily enough - all in the same direction as his band’s last three albums. I still quite like it. James Dean Bradfield’s album is very good, and as it is primarily influenced by music that everyone likes but rock critics pretends not to, this ELO fan is especially impressed. You sense, however, that if these albums were recorded as Radiohead or Manics albums, no one would notice the difference.
Thus, the best of the three is - true to form - the one that everyone seems to have ignored, and the only one that actually justifies its own existence. Idlewild simply couldn’t have made this album, and not just because founding member Colin Newman is on paternity leave. ‘My Secret Is My Silence’ seems like a natural progression for Woomble the songwriter, as he indulges his increased love of folk music, but would have been a waste of Idlewild’s group dynamic.
Thom Yorke insisted that nobody call 'The Eraser' a solo album - a typical act of stubborn pointlessness for which he is so widely both admired and ridiculed. I ignored him, as you can see. Roddy, down to earth as ever, indulged in none of this nonsense. He called it a solo album, and has released it with the minimal fuss such forays need. But, where ‘The Eraser’ is just Yorke mucking about on his own, ‘My Secret Is My Silence’ is a group exercise, albeit a group constructed solely for the two weeks it took to record the album. Indeed, one track doesn’t even feature our hero at all, the instrumental jig ‘Whiskeyface’, written by producer John McCusker. Woomble may have picked up aguitar for the photoshoot, but he never touched one in the studio, and contributes only his voice to the proceedings. Luckily, that is more than enough. He sings brilliantly, and there are a few tracks here as good as anything Idlewild have ever recorded. If Woomble ever becomes a huge star, he will have to make a record much worse than this.
So, musically, it is fair to say there are triumphs in all three albums. But what I have most enjoyed about them is their triumph over the PR machine. In the past few years, next year’s big things have been in such abundance that no one has time to actually become today‘s big thing. The problem being that it seems absolutely everything released gets called an 'instant classic' by someone. I mean, Razorlight? You must be joking. This is the hype machine becoming so efficient, it is obsolete. Anyone who paid £9.99 for that ‘masterpiece’ is surely feeling rather silly. Off to the second hand store it goes…
These three albums haven’t worked like that. It was almost like the old days, as we heard they were coming out, looked out for them in HMV, (then ordered them cheaper from Amazon), only making our minds up about the music within once we got home and played the albums. Simple, really. Why can’t it happen all the time?