I love analogies, I think in analogies, and there’s one in particular I’ve found to be extraordinarily useful. It has (and hasn’t, if you know what I mean) to do with sand, and the notion that the tighter you try to grip a handful of the stuff, the more the grains run through your fingers. Not the most sophisticated metaphor in the world, but it illustrates quite nicely how, in certain situations, the best results come when we set aside our instinctive need to control the external world through force.
[Waiting to continue until the urge to make an Iraq War comment passes… almost there… OK, let’s move on.]
I’ve bumped into a pair of music-related reminders of the sand-containment axiom lately, and they’ve led me to the conclusion that side projects are wonderful exemplars.
The first reminder has been somewhat unavoidable over the course of the past few months, as every blog/site/feed/outlet and its brother have paused to honor the tenth anniversary of the release of The Postal Service’s Give Up. Everyone knows the story of how the album was made and how the duo got its name, but the looseness of Ben Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello’s partnership goes beyond their bicoastal recording process. Consider that the collaboration started by chance, when Gibbard was in Los Angeles visiting Tamborello’s roommate, and that the conversation about doing more than the one song they worked on that weekend, in Gibbard’s memory, went something like…
Ben Gibbard: “Hey, would you want to do some more of this stuff?”
Jimmy Tamborello: “Yeah that sounds… that sounds good.”
Consider also that the two were little more than acquaintances when they started mailing ideas back and forth, and that they did a quick, month-long tour in support of Give Up, gave it up, and watched from afar as it grew to become a platinum seller. It’s bonkers. They barely existed as a “they” at all, but they made something truly exceptional — the second best-selling record in Sup Pop’s history — and their steadfast refusal to be rumor-shamed into making a follow-up is a rare demonstration of how some things are too good to have the life squeezed out of them. (That said, if they weren’t playing Merriweather Post Pavilion on the same night Tame Impala’s coming to Richmond, you best believe I would be there, squeezing every available drop of nostalgia out of those ten songs.)
My second sandy example hasn’t had the same ubiquity, but it’s no less meaningful. The Shouting Matches — the side project that joins Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, Phil Cook of Megafaun and Brain Moen of Peter Wolf Crier — quietly released an album on Tuesday that goes to show just how good relaxation can sound. There’s not a ton of information out there on how the record was made, so I can’t say for sure that these songs are a collection of first-takes, late-night jams and lightning-in-a-bottle moments, but they certainly sound like they are. It’s an interesting contrast between Grownass Man and Give Up — that the latter is so tidy and buttoned-up, in spite of the disconnected way in which it was made, where the former allows side-project slack to cross over into the songs themselves. Arrangements are remarkably sparse here and there, solos feel wholly improvised, Vernon’s full-voiced vocals play like a powerful exhale after so many notes sung falsetto for Bon Iver, and I have to say that I’m digging every bit of it.
That last part gets to the heart of why I’m in love with these songs. Bon Iver was such a fraught thing. It was met with lots of praise, capitial “C” criticism, discussions, year-end superlatives, a tense Grammys acceptance speech… the sum total of which accurately reflects the amount of thought, effort and care that clearly went into its creation. Just think about how many talented people it took to bring those songs to life in the live setting. And all that exertion was palpable. In much the same way that seeing that poor Louisville kid snap his leg in half made your leg hurt a little bit, it’s been exhausting watching Vernon be Bon Iver. So when I’m listening to Grownass Man, I feel like I’m breathing a well-earned sigh of relief myself. It’s catharsis, pure and simple. It also doesn’t hurt that Phil Cook is there, being his usual, amazing self. I love that dude. After I saw Megafaun in Portland, I drunkenly shook Cook’s hand and gushed about how phenomenal their set was. So embarrassing.
Whatever, I’d do it again. Sometimes you just gotta let go, amiright?
Check out three tracks from Grownass Man below and click here to snag the album on iTunes.