"I CAN'T STAND it when you get so intense," Jeff Tweedy sang on "No Sense in Lovin'" on Uncle Tupelo's swan song Anodyne. The song was a semi-sympathetic brush-off directed to a self-hating lover--but it also said something about the singer's creative worldview. Like McCartney to Lennon or Grant Hart to Bob Mould, Tweedy was his group's big heart, Jay Farrar its pining soul; when the men went their separate ways, their new outfits pretty much reflected this. Wilco's AM was a good-natured, country rock record--nothing too intense, nothing too messy--with propulsive if predictable hooks and at least one song ("Box Full Of Letters") that lived up to its retro pop radio ambition. For all its unmoored, one-note melancholy, Son Volt's Trace aimed for an emotional intensity and found it, mostly in the indelible burr of Farrar's voice--and was the more affecting record for it.
But the major question posed by both records--which is probably the question that exploded Uncle Tupelo, and remains a question ignored by the alternative country "movement" overall, Palace's Will Oldham or Vic Chestnutt aside--is how to reconcile past and present in a way that goes beyond fuzzy nostalgia and duh-yeah irony. Wilco's Being There (which could just as well have been titled Being Here) sits in a room with that question, filling its glass, packing its bong, and wrestling it to the ground when it refuses to give up its answers. As alt-country goes, it feels like a landmark record, both for the way it locates the usual pleasures, and how it winds up rendering the genre tag meaningless.
In its shaggy way, Being There is a very self-conscious record--self-consciously self-conscious, even. Take the double-disc format. At 76 minutes, the music could easily fit on a single CD. But double albums carry a certain old-fashioned formal significance, and the group takes advantage of the form. There is disc one's "outtasite (outta mind)" and disc two's mirror-take "outta mind (outta sight)," opposing versions of the same chimey pop tune in which the country-rock rave-up (#1) goes up against a Brian Wilson studio-pop confection (#2), resulting in a draw. Then there are the lead tracks, disc one's "misunderstood" and disc two's "sunken treasure." Both arrive like self-contained grudge matches, each clocking in more than six minutes long, with high-tension guitar noise and unsettling dissonance jousting with unashamedly pretty, though shakey, melodies.
These sorts of musical ambivalences and conflicts--old vs. new, pop music vs. roots music--surface throughout the record, sometimes overtly (the sci-fi synth intro smashed by righteous guitars on "i got you (at the end of the century)") and sometimes subtly (on "red eyed and blue," a modern studio recording lament that complains "We've got solid-state technology/ Tapes on the floor/ Some some songs we can't afford to play"). But the struggles on Being There come off as realistic and heartfelt despite its artifice. Or, arguably, because of it: Amidst the noise outbursts and studio detritus, the homespun melodies sound bright, essential, earned.
Wilco have made a brave but imperfect record--it's less Exile On Main Street than Sandinista!, defined by experiments that sometimes win and sometimes flop (see "the lonely 1," whose fan-centered perspective verges on the maudlin). That they sidelined longtime partner Brian Paulson and self-produced a record more studio-centered than anything they've attempted makes Being There even more impressive (though I'm sure the various engineers earned their keep). Tweedy's big risk, of course, is in alienating a constituency that may be more conservative than they'd like to think. But from the sound of things here, and considering Tweedy's recent entry into fatherhood, one supposes he's less worried about pleasing the old No Depression crowd. It's just funny that for a guy who always seemed to like his pleasures simple and upbeat, it took settling down with a family to inspire a record so unsimple, offbeat, and yes, intense. (Will Hermes)
Wilco performs on Nov. 23 & 24 at First Avenue.
WHERE WAS WEEZER when I needed them? When I was 16 and scrounging for tunes to blast on the way to the homecoming game? Fortunately, this sorta stuff still works for me--so I'll forgive them for being born too late. After two years, the group is back with more infuriatingly infectious melodies, once again making those ambushed key changes and calculated structural builds look as easy as passing out at a kegger.
For Pinkerton, the band dropped Ric Ocasek as producer, handling the duties themselves--Weezer bassist and Rentals lead man Matt Sharp is a production vet after sharing the duties on his moog-flavored Return of the Rentals album. And even if Pinkerton lacks some of their debut's crunchy pop gloss, the immediacy of the new release actually makes the group's first seem mannered by comparison. But don't expect the Rentals' sweetness here: These tunes are all Rivers Cuomo, a self-consciously libidinous Ivy Leaguer with a penchant for deceptively spare lyrics and rock-out choruses. Nothing on Pinkerton packs the disturbing pop pathos of "Say it Ain't So"; "Across the Sea" approaches its complexity, as Cuomo allows his guilt-soaked, detached lust for the young author of a fan letter to snowball into a knowingly futile plea for real intimacy. His vocals, meanwhile, are more adventurous this time around, showing by turns the influence of Freddy Mercury, Steve Malkmus and even a little G Love.
If there's a flaw, it's when Cuomo fails to pull off some of his lyrical risks. The album ender, an acoustic ballad with a powerful melodic ascent that dips into an aching fall, includes the wincer "Smell you on my hands for days/ I can't wash away your scent/ If I'm a dog then you're a bitch." (Hey Rivers, do you kiss your mother with that mouth?) Luckily, Pinkerton is also rife with the group's trademark nerdy hetero anthems--like "The Good Life," which finds Cuomo cockily imploring, "I don't wanna be the low man anymore/Been a year or two since I was out on the floor/ Shakin' bootie, makin' sweet love all the night/ It's time I got back to the good life." With an album this solid, he deserves it. (Laura Sinagra)
Weezer performs at 7 p.m. Friday at First Avenue.
Ocean of Sound
A Storm of Drones
"AS THE WORLD has moved towards becoming an information ocean, so music has become immersive. Listeners float in that ocean; musicians have become virtual travelers, creators of sonic theater, transmitters of all the signals received across the aether." So writes David Toop in the prologue to his recent book Ocean of Sound: Aether Talk, Ambient Sound and Imaginary Worlds (Serpent's Tail Press),
a tremendously illuminating look at the way
certain music of the 20th century has shifted away from strict formalism toward more formless soundscapes--and in doing so, reflects
some of the strange, fearful beauty of the modern world.
The double-CD Ocean of Sound set is a continuously segued mix of 100 years worth of music that inspired Toop's reveries. Claude Debussy and lounge maestro Les Baxter drift lazily into My Bloody Valentine and Brian Eno; The Beach Boys butt heads with the dubby African Head Charge; Herbie Hancock meshes with ambient techno innovator Aphex Twin; Indonesian vocalist Detty Kurnia segues up with Ornette Coleman; and the Velvet Underground ("I Heard Her Call My Name") blur into chants by bearded seals. It might sound like college radio-style self-conscious weirdness. But like any good modern DJ, Toop is making connections, tracing influences, and creating a sort of sound theater that's both entertaining and interactive--the story line you track is as much yours as the artists'.
Along these lines, A Storm of Drones might be considered a graduate seminar to Ocean's Ambient 101. A very compact three-CD set, it is the third and largest installment in a series released by the folks that brought you the ambient beat-logic of DJ Spooky (who contributes liner notes and one cut), and it blends the work of three dozen little-known electronic artists into a fascinating three-hour journey through very abstract audioscapes. Sometimes there are familiar signposts--twittering birds, thunder, traffic noise, running water. Mostly, though, you're on your own in a queer and sometimes threatening geography. As the liner notes explain: "This is not Eno-style ambient. This is not musical soma. The latent potential of motion, the ability to establish a recombinant zone of expression--these are the values that this anthology reflects: memory set adrift on the imploded dreams of our media, the accelerated pain of a world where 'the natural' has been replaced by the synthetic pleasures we like to call 'man-made.'" Yet as alien as these synthetic pleasures may seem at first, pleasure is indeed what they are about. So come on in--the ocean is quite fine. (Will Hermes)
Call Down the Thunder
RAW COUNTRY BLUES aren't supposed to be played by guys who were born in Manhattan, grew up in the 'burbs, have famous actors for parents, and have successful alternate careers as writers and actors. But Guy Davis, son of Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, defies all expectations, fingerpicking sparkling blues on his acoustic guitar, blowing a wicked blues harp and singing with a phlegmy voice that sounds like he's been sucking on whiskey, hardship, and Mississippi Delta dirt for longer than his 40-odd years. Davis is no dilettante, either: Having absorbed his grandparents' stories of the rural South, he's developed a fierce devotion to the blues as both an art form and a key to African-American tradition.
Evidence of his mastery of country blues (see Willie McTell, Robert Johnson, Leadbelly) and urban blues (see Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf) is all over his latest album for St. Paul's Red House Records. There are only three covers, including Mance Lipscomb's harrowing "Run Sinner Run" and a jaunty version of Johnson's "When You Got A Good Friend." The other 10 tracks are all Davis originals, although so drenched in authentic blues experience you might think to credit the howling stomp of "I Got The Power" to Waters or Wolf, or the rollicking "Georgia Jelly Roll" to Willie McTell, or the driving "Jelly Bone Jelly," featuring Pete Seeger on banjo, to Leadbelly. The one pop concession, "The Road is Calling," is a sprawling, road-as-life metaphor that could have come from the pen of Bonnie Raitt or John Hiatt. Which raises Davis' sole, very minor weakness: He's spent so much time evoking the spirits of blues greats, he hasn't quite nailed down his own distinctive style.
But that will come. "The best I can do is try to say the same old thing in a new way," he says in the liner notes. And for the moment, that's plenty good. (Rick Mason)
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