Aural Pleasure

‘Sky’ High

Over its 13-year history, Wilco has gone through multiple lineups, breakdowns and reinventions. The only constant may be bandleader Jeff Tweedy’s unwavering quest to follow his temperamental, wandering muse.

After chasing it through the assassin avenues of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and getting lost in the chrome hell of A Ghost is Born, Tweedy found his muse in an unlikely spot this time: the sun-baked, open fields of Sky Blue Sky.

Sky Blue Sky is infused with energy and optimism missing from previous Wilco albums (even an upbeat song like Foxtrot’s “Heavy Metal Drummer” glumly obsesses over happier times long gone). From the easy rockers “Side With the Seeds” and “Walken” to the quieter moments such as “Leave Me (Like You Found Me)” and “On and On and On,” Tweedy sounds like he’s actually enjoying himself.

Maybe his band mates have something to do with it. This is the first Wilco album to feature songs written by the whole group — not Tweedy alone — and the results are refreshing.

Sure, Tweedy’s still in charge (if Wilco is Cuba, Jeff Tweedy is Fidel Castro), but the benevolent dictator takes a step back — and his cohorts skillfully step up (listen for Nels Cline’s solo on the stunning “Impossible Germany” and Glenn Kotche’s inventive drum fills on “Hate it Here”). However, the sonic studio frills that punctuated Foxtrot (and later mushroomed into the 12-minute droning section of Ghost’s “Less Than You Think”) have mostly been abandoned in favor of this new “live rock band” mentality.

With less singing duties, Tweedy often eschews his vague poetics for the direct approach — revealing some of himself in the process.

While “Please Be Patient With Me” could be a plea from his days in rehab, “What Light” seems to sum up Tweedy’s musical philosophy: “If you like singing a song/and you want other people to sing along/just sing what you feel/don’t let anyone say it’s wrong.”

Amen, Jeff. Enjoy the sunshine — you’ve earned it.

— Chuck Kerr


Monkey Business

It’s one of the great rock clichés: A band comes out of the sticks to make an exuberant debut album, and when the world embraces them, they respond with a bummed-out follow-up.

Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner has an uncommon nose for pop-culture clichés, but just because he’s quick to spot them doesn’t mean he’ll have an easy time avoiding them. Consider the case of Arctic Monkeys’ Favourite Worst Nightmare, their quick response to Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, a brilliant debut, and a British chart phenomenon of unprecedented proportions.

It’s always hard to symphathize with stars who whine about the downside of fame, but Turner is an artist whose creative inspiration depends on being part of a community. What made the best songs on Whatever People Say I Am so appealing — apart from their punky spring and poppy snap — was the sense that while Turner was exposing the folly of a life spent on the make in dance clubs, he was implicating himself as much as his aimless peers. “I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor” and “Riot Van” were written in the first person, by someone smart enough to know he was acting foolish.

On Favourite Worst Nightmare, fame has set Turner apart from the crowd, and now the crowd looks a bit grotesque to him. That’s understandable, but not particularly endearing. When his band’s muscular rhythm section locks into a down-for-the-upstroke groove and he supplies a killer hook, as with “Teddy Picker,” his crabbiness can pass for the empathetic sneer of the debut album. And his purposeful cleverness shines through here and there, as on the album’s best song, “Fluorescent Adolescent,” when he profiles a former wild child now locked in a drab relationship: “That Bloody Mary’s lacking a Tabasco/ remember when he used to be a rascal?”

About half the time, however, Turner and his mates sound disconcertingly ordinary: repetitive, uninspired, and prematurely bitter. Favourite Worst Nightmare hardly qualifies as a washout, but it suggests that Turner might be in need of a vacation from rock stardom.

— Gilbert Garcia


Smith’s Blue ‘Moon’

Culled from outtakes and demos made between the release of his self-titled 1994 second album and his ’98 major-label debut, XO, New Moon is Elliott Smith’s second posthumous release (since 2003’s presumed suicide) and a nice counterpoint to 2004’s From a Basement on the Hill. Unlike that album, which was taken from his final, unfinished recordings and featured layered, full-band arrangements, this 28-song double disc reflects the crisp simplicity of his first three albums, a period as different as Revolver is from Sgt. Pepper’s.

Often playing with no more accompaniment than an acoustic guitar, Smith offers both stinging rebukes (“I’ve got nothing that I want to do/more than make another sordid fuck you/to play when you make me cliché,” he sings on the stunning “Looking Over My Shoulder”) and haunting ache (“Go on parade and fade/hit the scene and slow/spending all your time with some girl/you’ll never get to know” on “Go By”). His reedy tenor is a pliant tool, weathering the melancholy within his sweet, graceful melodies.

Smith sketches vignettes in orchestral strains of dysfunction that resolve to a moment of hope or resilience, as on the early version of his breakthrough hit, “Miss Misery,” which ends more positively than the finished piece, with Smith singing, “It’s all right, some enchanted night I’ll be with you.”

His insights can be disarmingly direct. On the bouncy, organ-fueled “Either/Or,” Smith notes how personal narratives are chiefly spin (“In an endless symbolic war/brave or bored, either/or”), while the country folk “Whatever (Folk Song in C),” poses the half-hearted come-on: “I’ve been wanting to do anything for a long time/whatever you’re doing now would probably suit me fine.”

More enjoyable than From a Basement, New Moon will shock Smith fans, who will have a hard time believing that he left strong tracks such as the stinging “New Monkey” or the painful “Talking To Mary” in the can.

— Chris Parker




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