Peter Buck, "Peter Buck" (Mississippi-MRP)
Paul Buchanan, "Mid Air" (Essential)
Martin Rossiter, "The Defenestration of St. Martin" (Drop Anchor)
'Tis the season for solo debuts from longtime iconic band figures, each outing recommended for die-hard fans only.
First, guitarist Peter Buck -- now free since R.E.M. collapsed into last year -- cranked out this solo debut in just five days. Buck always has been an impatient old cuss, and he chafed against R.E.M.'s much slower, considered mode of creative development. (See him kvetch about that at length in "Sex, Food, Death ... and Insects," a documentary about working with Robyn Hitchcock, one of Buck's many side projects.) Buck's unfettered haste results in pleasantly authentic-seeming performances on this self-titled platter, even if they range widely over the stylistic map. Careening gleefully between cowpunk ("Nowhere No Way"), garage rock ("10 Million B.C."), mid-'80s paisley underground ("Some Kind of Velvet Sunday Morning") and a few Stipe-worthy singles ("Nothing Means Nothing," sung by Corin Tucker from Sleater-Kinney), "Peter Buck" avoids overthinking anything. Thus, it's fun but hardly memorable. The pretentious kicker: "Peter Buck" is available only on vinyl.
Across the Atlantic, two former bandleaders have re-emerged quietly -- very quietly -- with records featuring only piano and voice. Paul Buchanan was the singer and emotional maestro of the Blue Nile, a Scottish trio whose romantic, organic pop unfolded as slowly as the band's output. Dissolving after 20 years and only four albums, echoes of the Blue Nile's mastery of space and time resound throughout these 14 yearning lyrics whispered by Buchanan's soft, crepe-paper voice. "Mid Air" is almost embarrassingly intimate, an entire album that sounds like "Easter Parade" but without any cathartic resolution. Buchanan mumbles often esoteric streams about faith, love, loss, cars and movies, each of which is recorded so close to his lips and with such stretching silences that one begins to feel personal space being violated. For Buchanan, as another band once sang, it's always 3 a.m., and the looming end of the song, like the night, is hopeful, dreadful or usually a bittersweet combination.
Martin Rossiter fronted Gene, a Britpop quartet sometimes unfairly written off as the Smiths of the '90s. But like that antecedent, Gene featured a delicious tension between the breathy, occasionally morose Rossiter and muscled-but-elegant guitarist Steve Mason. Without that dynamic foil, though, Rossiter's penchant for melancholy often turns maudlin on this belated solo premiere. In his pitch at PledgeMusic (a Kickstarter-like, music-specific fan-funding site), Rossiter describes the songs as "secular hymns," and they're definitely churchy. "Sing It Loud" stops just short of calling for repentance at a looming end, "I Must Be Jesus" skips gaily with an almost Tom Lehrer-on-the-chancel wink and smirk, and "Where There Are Pixels" is an over-the-top ode to age and the salvation of Photoshop (a companion piece, it must be stated, to Morrissey's "The Harsh Truth of the Camera Eye," if not a counterpoint to Gene's own "Looker"). Rossiter's earnestness alternates between being amusing and deeply moving, and his talent for sweeping songcraft is tough to match. Who knows who'll actually hear this record, but if I were in a band I'd beg his services as a songwriter.