Songs by second fiddles.

Songs you've got to hear.
April 15 2004 3:36 PM

Second Fiddles

Saluting the back-up singer, the sidekick, and the also-ran.

JC Chasez
Schizophrenic (Jive)
As teen-pop bands of the '90s splinter, 'N Sync has consistently yielded the juiciest storylines. Chasez is the one who didn't want to explore Broadway, outer space, or Virginia Beach; instead, he's maintained a pose as "the misunderstood one." While Chasez's debut album retraces former band-mate Justin Timberlake's steps a little too faithfully, it's not without its own charms. Like Timberlake, Chasez freely submits to the whims of his producers, most of whom smartly avoid overextending his thin, workmanlike voice. Instead, Chasez plays the terminally confused (one could say schizophrenic) plug-in. He tries on different moods for size as the songs swing from gleeful to lonely to horny and back; the only thing he doesn't feel is a yearning to lead. On "Shake It," he defers to the noisy elasticity of Basement Jaxx's 21st-century version of BT Express' disco classic "Do It ('Til You're Satisfied)." Better yet is "Some Girls," as Chasez playfully pursues bubbles, purrs, and diwali-inspired handclaps without challenging the primacy of the beat's conversing click-clacks.

D12
"My Band" (Shady/Interscope)
Part of the reason it is so difficult to make a definitive case for or against Eminem is that he's one of the most self-aware subjects in pop history. Having used his clout to promote his group D12, Eminem has always seemed more like a charitable benefactor than a true member. "My Band," the lead single from D12's sophomore album, pre-empts any snickers by playfully literalizing the day-to-day strains of being "the other guys" in Eminem's band. Ninety-five percent of hip-hop nowadays is about throwing your inferior crew a lifeline, but the dynamic's never been rendered with this much self-conscious wit. Em pokes fun at his own alpha-ness and accuses the others of petty jealousy while Swifty complains that their dressing room is not only separate, it's "smaller than a decimal." In a hilarious back-and-forth, Kuniva and Konartis agree to knock some sense into their show's star, but then both of them wilt sycophantically when the opportunity arises.

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Destroyer Your Blues
(Merge)
There's a wholesome, powerful democracy to the New Pornographers: When you listen, you imagine that this is precisely what it sounds like when many heads find purpose as one. Conversely, sometime-Pornographer Dan Bejar's records as Destroyer sound like those of a single, wispy man lost in himself. The music (played by Bejar and two collaborators) possesses a glamorous, arena-sized pomp, but shrunk down to modest, lonesome dimensions: The Casio-driven instrumentation offers a charmingly childish balance to Bejar's epic songwriting. Bejar, who sounds like a luckless Broadway extra afflicted with a chintzy fake-Brit accent, paraphrases the Smiths and Fleetwood Mac, doubles back on himself ("The future is yours! No, wait, I lied!"), and offers harangues about gondolas, trust funds, the Spiral Jetty, and his own failings. Throughout, he moves with a careful, feline awareness, suggesting that the funny-sounding parts are indeed meant to be funny, and the sad-sounding parts aren't meant for us to fully comprehend.

Goodie Mob
Dirty South Classics (Arista)
Before OutKast figured out a way to reinvent the color wheel, Goodie Mob was the Atlanta group that seemed to have the market for quirky, down-home Southern rap cornered. This was 10 years ago, before "Southerner"qualified as a legitimate rap identity. In this recent greatest-hits collection, one hears the blueprint for the region's late-1990s rise: The drawls are thick and unapologetic, the beats sparse, earthy, and indifferent to West or East Coast trends. Despite their distinct styles, T-Mo, Cee-Lo, Big Gipp, and Khujo could each find something redemptive about Southern life, whether it was a plate of waffles, a big Cadillac, or just the wide-open sky. The Mob circa 2004 finds itself in disarray: Lapped by onetime peers OutKast, the group's priorities changed, and the charismatic Cee-Lo bolted, seemingly taking the group's soulful modesty with him. As such, the hard-earned hope and quotidian pleasures of these hits seem more distant than ever.

Jonny Greenwood
Bodysong (Capitol)
As Radiohead's sound grows increasingly formless and slippery, lead singer Thom Yorke becomes increasingly responsible for their songs' structure and shape. Nowhere is this more evident than on guitarist Greenwood's intriguing score for the film Bodysong. Greenwood is universally acknowledged as the shy, meticulous wiz behind the band's constant shape-shifting. Just as his abrasive guitars propelled the band's sound circa "Creep," his rejection of the guitar in favor of sequencers and samplers defines their approach today. Without Yorke's ballast, many of the beautifully vivid, Radiohead-sounding sketches here are left to linger and unspool by themselves. The gentle lilt of "Moon Trills" or the cautious rippling of "Moon Mall" could easily be folded into longer, "proper" songs. But in keeping with the spirit of the film—a hypnotic sequence of images depicting the inner life of the human body from the cradle to the grave—Greenwood allows the music to decay naturally, rather than cutting it off at the singer's whim.

Hua Hsu teaches in the English department at Vassar College and is completing his first book, A Floating Chinaman.