Gawd, it's been a long time. Without further ado:
In 1990, Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy started a movement with a bold claim: They were going, they said, following in the footsteps of late greats Ira Louvin, Gram Parsons and Mother Maybelle Carter, to a place where there was no depression, to a better land that was free from care.
Nearly a decade on, it doesn’t seem like either one has arrived there just yet. Farrar, a melancholic at heart all along, has mostly left the at once folksy and mystical style he exhibited par excellence on tracks ranging from “Anodyne”—one of the best tracks off the best album he cut in his band with Tweedy, Uncle Tupelo—to “Medicine Hat,” an cryptic, upbeat ditty by Son Volt, the band he formed after UT split. Listening to his songs now is depressing for a far different reason than the Midwestern bleakness of his mid-’90s work: obtuse, didactic political rants delivered in an ever-weaker voice, punctuated occasionally by fantastic flashes of the old brilliance like “Methamphetamine,” from Son Volt’s most recent disc, The Search. Regardless of the quality, the haunting Appalachian character remain strong; with side project Gob Iron, Farrar recorded an entire CD of songs about death. If there is indeed happiness at the end of the road for the dour songwriter, he ain’t there yet. (And one wonders how he’ll fare when he does arrive.)
While Farrar was clearly the more mature, more accomplished and dominant force in Uncle Tupelo, his public star dimmed after their breakup, even as Trace far excelled A.M., the first effort by Tweedy’s new band, Wilco (both records, incidentally, were produced by Brian Paulson of Odelay fame). Although it’s underrated, A.M. is still a portrait of an embryonic band with a sound not as fully formed as Trace-era Volt’s, lacking something—probably guitarist and keyboardist Jay Bennett, who came on board for Being There, the band’s second record and second-best to date. It’s a two-disc record; not everything on the first disc is perfect, but it seems to live and breathe as a whole. Songs flow seamlessly into one another (sometimes really—in a brilliant sequencing decision, the closing two chords of “Red-Eyed and Blue,” intoned mournfully on a dampened piano, morph into the exuberant, jumpy tremolo guitar vamp of “I Got You (At the End of the Century)”). And Bennett brought not only strong guitar skills, but also a feel for arrangement, adorning the songs with a dash of Max Johnston’s banjo here, a touch of the ubiquitous Greg Leisz’s steel guitar for taste, and a garnish of horn section. For dessert, there’s the carmelized-sugar synthesizer of “Hotel Arizona.”
Suffice it to say, things have been uphill since then for Jeff Tweedy, musically at least. His band was chosen by Billy Bragg as collaborators for the
Where the cups are cracked and hooked
Above the sink
They make me think
Crumbling ladder tears don't fall
They shine down your shoulders
And crawling is screw faster lash
I blow it with kisses
I rest my head on a pillowy star
And a cracked-door moon
That says I haven't gone too far
I'm coming home
I'm coming home
I'm coming home
The half nonsense of the lyrics is wrapped into a spare and haunting landscape of distorted and fed-back guitar (when the Cowboy Junkies lifted the main riff for a song several years later, it made complete sense coming out of Michael Timmons’ guitar). The overall feel is as creepy as the song’s first line (“I dreamed about killing you again last night, and it felt alright to me”) and teeters on the edge of chaos, its form threatening to dissolve at several points, but with the band barely managing to manhandle it back.
As buzz for the next record built, suggesting Wilco would be the Next Big Thing, a documentary captured a snapshot of a band dropped unceremoniously from their label and struggling through an acrimonious Bennett-Tweedy split. Improbably, it did help to make them NBT, at least in the indie-rock world, where they were dubbed “the American Radiohead.” The record whose making is depicted in I Am Trying to Break Your Heart is the hugely successful Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, a well-regarded but very disappointing and chilly soundscape experiment; they fully captured their new hipster audience with A Ghost Is Born even as Tweedy languished in the throes of prescription drug addiction.
Earlier this spring, they released their eargerly-awaited follow-up Sky Blue Sky, to a chorus of confused reviews. The indier-than-thou critics have been generally dismissive, while others, like The New York Times’ Jon Pareles and All Music Guide’s Mark Deming both see the record as some sort of return to the band’s old Americana, a plaintiveness (or something) not heard since before the Beach Boys-influenced, wall-of-sound keyboard onslaught of Summerteeth. In Shake it Off, a video documentary accompanying the record, Tweedy appears to be making the same connection, harkening back to his hometown of Belleville, Ill.—birthplace of Uncle Tupelo, incidentally—in his very first statement on screen, and explaining that in coded political language that in this day and age, he felt that “imagistic,” abstract words (“I am an American aquarium drinker,” anyone?) were inappropriate, and he just wanted to sing people songs.
Well, sort of, I guess. The usually spot-on Pareles has for the most part missed the mark here; one has to wonder if he listened to Being There again before he wrote his review. There’s plenty of melancholy on the earlier disc, but it’s full of vigor, fire, crunch and literalism, and some remnants of the punk feel that infused
There are attempts at the directness of past songs, but there’s also weird stuff like “Shake It Off,” a track that’s as disjointed and herky-jerky lyrically as it is musically. But it’s followed with “Please Be Patient With Me,” one Tweedy’s most heartfelt songs ever, about his struggles with addiction.
(Ironically, with its trippy prog-guitar jams, Sky Blue Sky is probably better stoner music than anything else Tweedy’s recorded with any group. New lead guitarist Nels Cline, who comes from the Bay Area avant-garde jazz/improvisational music scene, seems to be channeling Jerry Garcia and even Trey Anastasio as much, if not more, than he is Sneaky Pete Kleinow, Clarence White or Bernie Leadon.)
“What Light” is of a piece with the Mermaid Avenue songs. And yet the song that immediately sticks out on the disc is “Impossible Germany,” driven by a catchy riff and with a fantastic guitar solo. Farrar’s recent antiwar, Bush-bashing songs fail because he insists on using big words but can’t capture the raw feeling of his idols Bob Dylan or Neil Young (as my father once pointed out during the Son Volt heyday, it’s not often you hear a country song with the word “paradigm”; but as he moves farther away from country, his words have gotten longer and less effective). Tweedy’s fails because it’s too oblique. Exhibit A:
The fundamental problem
We all need to face
This is important
But I know you're not listening
Oh I know you're not listening
In a torturously awkward moment early in the DVD, Tweedy clumsily explains that the song is political, using the most anodyne terms and never really saying it. Gawd, what a terrible conceit for a song, though. It’s fairly unmoving until the instrumental bits kick in.
But oh, what parts they are. Deming is right to point out that Cline represents the best lead guitarist the band has had to date. To recap: Brian Henneman of the Bottle Rockets, who I imagine would be completely adrift in the midst of these songs; Bennett; briefly Tweedy; and now Cline. But Cline’s steel guitars be damned, SBS is not an alt-country record. The musical comparisons cropping up in reviews are far apart: Jackson Brown, the Band, American Beauty-era Grateful Dead, Lynyrd Skynyrd (!), etc. etc.
While there are echoes of all of these, none of them quite nails it. In shots of Wilco’s fabled loft in Shake if Off, the very symbol of American twang, the Fender Telecaster, is shown in the hands of Pat Sansone, (if this were American Beauty, the usually superfluous Sansone would be, like, Ned Lagin), and prominently displayed behind but never played by Tweedy himself. Cline namedrops the Byrds, too. But it sounds to me as though the combination of being in
It’s fun to listen to and watch Cline, in a weird way; Bennett was no innovator, but he played a solid rock and country guitar, crunching or wailing when necessary and even good B-bender skills (unlike the more pretentious recent roster, Bennett actually played his Tele). But you can hear Cline’s avant-garde side fighting with his intuition. Take his solo on “Impossible Germany.” The song starts—before its stilted lyrics—with a feathery interlocking riff delivered by Cline and either Sansone or Tweedy (or both?). When it hits the solo, Cline holds back as Tweedy and Sansone set up the rhythm riff; he cautiously strikes out with a mellow edge after a long pause. It’s a sugary sweet note, so he hits a odd note, bends a second, goes up an interval to a third, higher note; looking for the spot, still tentative. Finally, he gets in a groove, the kind Bennett would have loved; but he’s not comfortable letting it run its course, so he plays it again, again, again, fighting with a reluctant lyricism. In a last act of defiance, he takes off on an aggressive John McLaughlin-esque flight of 32nd notes before finally settling into a comfort zone, surrendering to melody.
A lot of people seem to think this is a dull record, and it can be pretty navelgazing. It’s funny to me that all the jazz press, when they write about things like asdfas Monastery, the disc of Andrew Hill songs Cline put out last year, refers to him as a rock musician and refer to his membership in Wilco, while the rock press insists on trumpeting his outsider bona fides as a jazzman. Rock listeners, and here I’m thinking of my father, may not be able to dig his relaxed approach, but if you can appreciate the internal fight that’s clearly going on for him between a homespun, relaxed approach and his training, which tells him to go dissonant, there is plenty of excitement. As I do far too often, I’m inclined to compare him to Bill Frisell, also a guitarist who started out as an avant-garde jazz guitarist and now plays deeply American music; interestingly, it’s Frisell who’s more accepted as a mainstream jazz player and also Frisell who is willing to jettison blue notes and fancy scales when playing country-influenced music.
Drummer Glen Kotche is another experimentalist, albeit one brought into the fold long ago, for YHF. There, he made his presence known early on, with a visceral, downright melodic drum riff in the first minute of set-starter “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” but his playing here is restrained and fairly orthodox; he even sounds like he’s trying to channel John Bonham in places. And there is very plain harmonic structure to some songs (e.g. “What Light”), but the slow opening vamp, minus Tweedy’s singing, of “Shake it Off” could be something from the In A Silent Way sessions. Mikael Jorgensen’s keyboard washes are generally low in the mix, just a part of the tapestry. Even when they are prominent, they don’t grab at you like the rote vamp of “Can’t Stand It” (Summerteeth), and lyrics about “piano[s] filled with soul” would be entirely out of place here.
Watching the DVD, I found, is instructive. Just as I can’t imagine Henneman’s reaction if he were asked to play these songs, I can’t picture Uncle Tupelo or A.M.-era Wilco, even, deciding to create one of these pretentious video documents. I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense; it’s just different and reveals something about what the band sees as their trajectory, and it’s also immensely useful for the likes of me. It does provide a window into the band’s psyche. There was a time when my image of a Wilco recording session was shaped by “Red-Eyed and Blue” from Being There:
We've got solid-state technology
Tapes on the floor
Some songs we can't afford to play
When we came here today
All I wanted to say
Is how much I miss you
Alcohol and cotton balls
And some drugs
We can afford on the way
When we came here today
We all felt something true
Now I'm red-eyed and blue
Wilco c. 2007 is considerably better behaved, downright urbane and adult, even, settling into a midlife existence. They ruminate on how the record was recorded live, how they feel more mature than ever, what the chemistry of this group is like; Jeff seems to be really struggling, throughout, with the specter of the two Jays. For example, Bennett was the master of layering, of many keyboards and overdubs, so the insistence that the record was life seems like a conscious reaction against it, and his breakup with Farrar is a lynchpin of the Uncle Tupelo/Son Volt/Wilco mythology.
I think that’s part of why this isn’t as strong a record as Being There. The band has considerably more raw talent than it had then; Bennett is nowhere near the musician Cline is, nor could Ken Coomer touch Glen Kotche. Tweedy’s learned, and Jorgensen and Sansone are icing on the cake. But Cline and the others seem largely content to sit off to the side and do his part when he’s called on to do it. The best records Tweedy has made—Anodyne, Summerteeth, Being There—have been made with a strong collaborator. It wasn’t Bennett’s playing, whether on keys or guitar, that made the difference; it was his creative spark and the way he influenced the songs that did it. That’s why this record doesn’t make that mark. I do think it’s a good record, and the Rob Mitchell’s review at Pitchfork is misguided; 5.2 is awfully low. Wilco records have a habit of being difficult to judge at first, but I’d like to think that it’s better than either YHF or A Ghost Is Born, owing to the musical improvement and a more direct lyrical sense. Still, it’s not the dramatic return that Tweedy and Pareles would have us imagine.
In his review, Pareles begins by asking, “Where did all the weird noises go?” He’s onto something, but it’s not the right question. One has to suspect that the indie crowd blasting the disc want the same thing; it’s just not esoteric enough for them. There’s a marked simplicity to Sky Blue Sky, but this record, with its melancholy resignation, is far more of a piece with A Ghost Is Born and YHF, blips, beeps, and fuzz included, than it is with any of the earlier records.
Before I’d heard the record, I spoke with a friend of mine told me about it. He explained that he believed that Wilco were true artists because they refuse to remain static, always moving forward with each record. And he’s right; this is no return to a past formula, but quite clearly continuous with what’s gone before. Paraphrasing the words of Voltaire, I don’t enjoy the music Wilco makes now as did some of the previous records, but I will defend to death—or rather, to the detriment of my hipster credentials—their right to play it.