Sometimes, a band just gets pigeonholed into a sound and feels the need to break the monotony with something wacky. Sometimes you just found a new instrument and want to see what it’s capable of (see The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood”). Sometimes, you let the drummer write a song. Whatever the case may be, I love hearing bands taking a stab and something totally outside of their wheelhouse. It makes one sit up and take notice (for better or for worse) and maybe even develop an appreciation for the curiosity of the members of the band. Either way, here are five tracks where artists went “outside”:
1) The Police – Mother
One of the few Police songs not penned by Sting, this track by guitarist Andy Summers takes the old I-IV-V blues progression and hangs on it an Arabian-tinged dirge more suitable for a slasher movie soundtrack. A far cry from their reggae-flavoured pop/rock, a synthesizer plays a maddening chromatic decent while Sting on the oboe winces in the background. Summers takes the lead vocal, screaming Oedipal declarations (“Well every girl that I go out with/Becomes my mother in the end!”) and laughing maniacally. Stuck in the middle of their pop masterpiece Synchronicity, which spawned both “Every Breath You Take” and “King of Pain”, it’s pretty jarring to hear, but not unwelcome. It’s refreshing that they were still open to that kind of experimentation up to what would be their swan song.
2) The Decemberists – Like A Lion
A far cry from their usual jangly folk-rock, “Like A Lion” does feature Colin Meloy and an acoustic guitar, but everything else seems…off. Based around a sample of an orchestral flourish that intrudes at odder and odder intervals, the acoustic guitar doesn’t have it usual deftness but instead is being hammered and sounds stunted and low, which fits the funereal atmosphere. When the song drifts away momentarily, it’s a gentle beeping which brings us back in. Later on, string scratches and feedback join the festivities and refuse to leave, building up an ugly wall of sound as it heads towards the finish. Meloy’s usual sprightly voice is dour and double-tracked, mournfully delivering a paean to that moment after you’ve held your breath and how “time stands still/until now”. Attempting to make sense of what he experienced at the birth of his son, “Like A Lion” is, on the surface, majestic, but one layer deeper, profoundly confused.
3) Peter Gabriel – Excuse Me
Before Peter Gabriel really found his groove with the rhythms that would define his later solo career, it released a rather eclectic first album after splitting from Genesis. One experiment he would not duplicate was the barbershop and light jazz of “Excuse Me”. On the introduction with Gabriel’s theatrical, exaggerated lead, you can practically hear the straw boater hats and canes. The a capella group is nary to return for the rest of the song, but are soon replaced with honky-tonk piano, slide whistle and tuba as Gabriel ends every verse by stating “I wanna be alone” as he yearns for everyone to get out of his mind, out of his life and out of his way for just a moment. The song is very much reminiscent of Queen’s “Seaside Rendezvous” as being a total throw back to 20s/30s music, but where Freddie Mercury adapted his voice to sound as if it emanated from the era, Gabriel sounds like his is stuck out of time and only has a 20s backup band available to get his thoughts across, so he might as well use ’em.
4) David Bowie – Yassassin (Turkish For: Long Live)
Bowie is well-known for being an experimentalist and trend-setter and has made a career out of getting to and defining the ‘latest thing’. An album after his side-long ambient experiments with Eno, Bowie released Lodger, which, as the title suggests, deals with his feelings as a world traveller. Though he doesn’t explore a whole lot of world music on the album, there are a couple of spots where the international flavour is felt and no more so than on “Yassassin”, which combines two styles, neither of which Bowie would return to much later on in his career: reggae and Turkish folk music. The offbeat reggae rhythm starts off the track, soon joined by a tinny organ, and then a wandering violin gives us the Turkish tune that goes for pretty much the whole song, gently soloing in an Eastern mode. It, strangely enough, works pretty well, with Bowie giving enough deference to both genres and giving a slightly accented vocal about being “just a working man/no judge of men” and an all male backing chorus telling us to “look at this!”
5) Muse – Madness
Though the song is quintessentially, undeniably Muse, there’s something different about “Madness” that catches the ear on the otherwise totally bombastic The 2nd Law. It’s mainly about control. Most Muse songs wield powerful riffs, lush, orchestrated harmonies, gasping breaths, shouted paranoid lyrics and piercing falsetto (in fact, all of these things can be found on the tracks proceeding it, “Supremacy”). But “Madness” is controlled. It has a simple beat, a plaintive melody, is about love of all things (though seeing love as an encroaching mental illness is very Muse), has measured harmonies and slowly builds up, with each verse adding a couple more layers. The guitar solo is absolutely precise, gorgeous and the perfect length for the song. This is Muse with their powers focused into the 3-minute pop song (well, 4:40) and it just emerges crystalline. Not that they aren’t one of the best rock groups on the planet, but this is just a surprising entry to their oeuvre that produced fantastic results.