Tuesday, March 30, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Wilco (the album),’ Wilco (2009)

Was Jay Bennett as important to Wilco as Jeff Tweedy? The evidence is mounting.

Bennett, who died suddenly almost a year ago, was fired from Wilco after the band finished recording its best and most acclaimed album, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.” That was also the last great album the band made. I do not believe in coincidences.

After Bennett’s death, I recently re-watched “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” the 2002 documentary filmed during the creation of and subsequent drama resulting from “Foxtrot.” Director Sam Jones, to this viewer, portrays Bennett as the bad guy in the band, because he wouldn’t just shut up and get along and get the record done, already. Why did he have to question every little thing?

But eight years and three albums later, it looks more like Bennett was exactly what Tweedy, Wilco’s founder, frontman, and primary songwriter, needed: Someone to challenge him, to argue with him, to examine every little detail. From the (albeit limited) footage of the “Foxtrot” recording sessions included in the film, Bennett seems to be the one doing all the hard work, breaking all the boundaries, “destroying” all the songs, as Tweedy puts it. Bennett’s the one putting mics in weird places and creating sounds out of disparate sources. Certainly Tweedy’s songs are at the heart of that record, but was it Bennett who needled and pushed those tracks to their full potential, creating a modern classic in the process? When Bennett is quoted toward the end of the film saying he believes Tweedy couldn’t handle having a star in the band other than him, it rings more with truth now than the bitterness it did years ago.

And that brings us to “Wilco (the album),” released last month. The band Tweedy has assembled around him now is a powerhouse, to be sure, most notably with lead guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Glenn Kotche. Onstage this lineup is something to behold; if you want proof, take a spin through 2005’s double-disc live album, “Kicking Television.”

But just because they can bring it onstage doesn’t mean they’re equally compelling in the studio. I’ve never recorded an album before, but it seems to me those are two totally separate worlds, and rare are the bands that live in both equally well. Wilco is a better live band now than it’s ever been, but the latest album from these well-mannered, utterly professional musicians is rather … dull.

If I had just one chance to try and make someone a Wilco fan, “One Wing” is the only song from the new album I’d even consider; no others stand out as exceptional. “Bull Black Nova” is maybe the best of the rest, but even that seems a pale experimental representation of prior glories and is a bit too reminiscent of the aimless wanderings of “Spiders (Kidsmoke).”

Tweedy sounds bored. For a man who’s forgotten more memorable melodies than most musicians could hope to write, there’s a plodding nature to these songs that reeks of staleness. I love the music of “I’ll Fight,” but the lyrics … ugh; “Solitaire” has pretty harmonies but goes nowhere; “Everlasting Everything” is an epic in search of a purpose; and even the enchanting Leslie Feist can’t wake “You and I” out of its drowsy slumber.

There are some better moments, though: “Wilco (the song)” is catchy and appreciably self-effacing; “You Never Know” has an “Everyday People” punch to it; “Sonny Feeling” is a nice throwback to the easygoing nature of “A.M.”; "Deeper Down" is mildly intriguing; and I’ve already mentioned “One Wing,” clearly the best song on this album and the only one that really gets my blood pumping—I love the intro, especially.

To answer the original question: Tweedy is without question the heart and soul of Wilco, and he is a wonderful, captivating musician and songwriter. One of my all-time faves. He is Wilco, and Wilco is him. But his body of work, which dates back two decades now, points to an artist who thrives on conflict, who needs to be challenged, who isn’t at his best when comfortable. Back in the Uncle Tupelo days, Tweedy was the one challenging the tried-and-true hard-country methods of bandmate Jay Farrar; years later, Tweedy then gets pushed further out of his own genre-defying comfort zone by the idiosyncratic Bennett. The results in both cases are brilliant, but ultimately each was cut short by clashing egos and purposes.

It’s not a new tale; everyone from Lennon and McCartney to Big Boi and Andre 3000 suffered similar fates. But that doesn’t make it any less unfortunate—or frustrating. And it certainly doesn’t make for better Wilco albums.

Jay Bennett, you are missed.

Grade: C

Favorite Track: “One Wing”

Least Favorite Track: “Country Disappeared”

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