Saturday, May 26, 2007

That's the Thanks I Get

It's of course highly dubious that Jeff Tweedy read my blog review on Sky Blue Sky and rushed the band back into the studio, but the end result is the same: I'm sitting here listening to a rocking full-band version of "Is That The Thanks I Get?" The band does not disappoint. Rush out and get your own Sky Blue Sky copy now if you haven't already, and make sure to stick it in your computer to download the bonus song. It's the best of the whole bunch.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Happy Birthday Mr. Dylan!

In honor of Mr. Dylan's 66th birthday today, check out this parody. But, after you do, go ahead and listen to some real Dylan. Take your pick, but you owe it to the man today to celebrate his tunes.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Sky Blue Sky - soulful rock 'n' roll glory

Sky Blue Sky is Jeff Tweedy’s most soulful batch of tunes, yet the record unquestioningly will go down as the “Nels Cline” Wilco album. The new lead guitarist is prevalent in every track, at every turn and twist in the music and completely in step with Tweedy throughout, giving the singer and songwriter a freedom he’s never had before in recording.

Critically (and in the blogs), the record is discussed overall as mellow, classic-rock sounding, safe and (for those who can’t live without bashing good music) dull. Bullshit. Sky Blue Sky may be Wilco’s most subtle and most layered record, but it’s also full of tension and mobility. Where before there was swagger, now there’s smarts; where there was noise, now there’s tunefulness; where there was angst, there’s now a songwriter navigating his struggles with wisdom.

Wilco was never anywhere near as “experimental” as they got labeled in regards to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, mostly by people who were new to the band. Nor was the band ever as “country” as previously labeled, by the people who ignored them until YHF.

Tweedy says as much in an interview with Pitchfork, a publication which then turned around as if it hadn’t been listening one bit and panned the album, dismissively calling it “dad-rock” in a review I consider the publication’s shark-jumping moment, losing the last bit of relevance on the road from “take it with a grain of salt” to “don’t even bother reading.”

The one moment on the album that nails me to the wall – and hits the mark so clearly in defining the album’s strengths – is the latter two thirds or so of “Impossible Germany.” The song is just swept up by its own guitar solos, an intertwining dance of Cline and Tweedy, two couldn’t-be-more-different styles hopscotching around each other in joy and kindness. The song conjures both night and day, childhood and today. It’s truly a conversation, drenched in amazing emotions, always balancing each other out. The guitars are filled with motion, creating a spinning sensation and an exploration that embarks and retreats, over and over. I can’t begin to pinpoint a meaning in the lyrics overall (Impossible Germany / Unlikely Japan ?? Is there some WWII connection?), but toward the end, when Tweedy sings “This is what love is for / To be out of place / Gorgeous and alone / Face to face,” he captures that same sensation, a sort of necessary tension that holds life together.

The music is so compelling and Tweedy not only brings his best singing voice after quitting the smokes, but has reached a new level in terms of creating incredible melodies. So in that sense it’s disappointing that some of Tweedy’s lyrics this time around are, if not his least evocative and least insightful (watch the Sunken Treasure DVD for that joke), definitely his least adventurous.
There’s no “I dreamed about killing you again last night” or “a fixed bayonet through the great Southwest to forget here” or even a sly “You’re gonna make me spill my beer” to be found, but it seems like Tweedy is perfectly content in the simpler images.
“Shake It Off” starts with Tweedy describing how the “Sunlight angles on / A wooden floor at dawn.” “A ceiling fan is on / Chopping up my dreams,” he continues, but the song, lyrically at least, never gets much more interesting.
Anyone in search of an overall artistic statement on the album would do best to zero in on the second-to-last song, the terrific and catchy “What Light.”

To me perhaps the thing that has defined Wilco most as a band is the fact that while no album sounds quite like another, each contains at least one song that would mesh perfectly with any other album (a contention I’ve made before: A.M. – Dash 7; Being There – Misunderstood, at least; Summerteeth – How To Fight Lonliness; YHF – Poor Places; A Ghost Is Born – The Late Greats, which is absolutely the most Wilco of all Wilco songs).

“What Light” holds that position here, an even-tempoed rocker that starts jangly strummed 12-string acoustic guitar and in perfect measure adds three other guitars, piano and organ, a sound that’s never too much and never too little. Tweedy opens with a stanza that’s daring in its simplicity, a purposeful and unapologetic bit of advice that could easily double as a self-fulfilling mantra he built the record around: “If you feel 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.”

The repeated chorus in “Leave Me Like You Found Me” sounds like it’s coming from somebody whose been shoved under a microscope and from Tweedy, it could be a plea to just about anybody – perhaps spurred by his band’s new found place as Rock’s Most Scrutinize, or leftover from his scrutinized trip to rehab, or his epic record-company battles, band-mate exists, or even the dissolution of Uncle Tupelo.

Other highlights are the laid-back, almost funky groove of “I Hate It Here,” the jaunty “Walken” and “You Are My Face,” which musically sounds closest to the Mermaid Avenue sessions and lyrically like Tweedy picked a little bit out of ol’ Woody’s pocket: “Why is there no breeze / no currency of leaves.”

Most songs build and turn, shifting instruments flawlessly, with a sound much more like a live performance than they’ve ever nailed on record. Which is definitely encouraging, after listening to how the live show gave new life to the A Ghost is Born songs on Kicking Television.

By biggest (and really only) complaint is the absence of “Is That the Thanks I Get,” which showed up in a Tweedy solo version on the Live in the Northwest DVD. Well, I’ve heard a full-band version, last summer on Conan O’Brien’s show, and it was incredible. It’s a tune Tweedy wrote for Solomon Burke to sing on the the Don’t Give Up On Me album and I love the spare version. But backed by the rest of his Wilco mates, the song comes alive as a bouncy soul groove, with a hooky sing-along chorus and chocked full of guitars, piano and organ fills. It’s the same direction I see Tweedy going with the Sky Blue Sky songs, so I hope a new recording turns up somewhere.

Now, I’ll repeat a little drill I did in writing about A Ghost Is Born, listing the opening lyrics from each Wilco album, chronologically backwards:

“When I sat down on the bed next to you / You started to cry”
“I am an American aquarium drinker / I assassin down the avenue”
“The way things go / You get so low / Struggle to find your skin”
“When you're back in your old neighborhood / The cigarettes taste so good”
“You always wanted more time / To do what you / Always wanted to do”

As I pointed out then, it’s full of I’s and You’s, all infused with this mobility, a certain sort of tension there that bore out as the albums wore on. There’s always been a sort of struggle that has defined Tweedy’s lyrics up until now. And while it’s certainly not gone, this is the first time it’s really matched by contentment, or wisdom, or maybe best described as a sly “So it goes” attitude.

So when Tweedy open Sky Blue Sky with “Maybe the sun will shine today / The clouds will blow away / Maybe I won’t feel so afraid / I will try to understand / Either way,” he really sounds like a new man in a sense.

In interviews he’s said just as much: that this was the easiest Wilco album to make, the most collaborative recording process, overall the simplest and most fruitful experience. I love the notion that music making doesn’t have to involve tremendous stress or heartbreak or struggle, or that songs don’t have to come out of a dark place to relate something important. Why Wilco has been dinged some for this album I’ll never understand – it’s beautiful, but not achingly or hauntingly so, just comfortable whether it’s spare or full in sound, with a core of emotion that’s neither dark or soaring, just occasionally content. There’s no doubt the new players, particularly Cline, have pushed this band musically, and that they made perhaps a simpler and subtler record than they’re capable of just means to me that it was what the songs called for. And the songs are tremendous, with a soulful rock ‘n’ roll glory throughout that no other band today can match.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

An open letter to David Stern and Stu Jackson

(Which, if their email addresses are and they might actually read, because the messages weren't sent back to me undeliverable.)

Dear Commissioner and Commissioner's Lackey:
Your suspension of Stoudemire and Diaw for game five is the most appalling and unnatural intrusion into playoff competition by any league office in the history of professional sports.
There are plenty of ways to parse words regarding the interpretation of "altercation" and "immediate bench area," but the fact is you have illogically chosen to suspend two players for merely standing up from the bench chairs and taking a few steps (hardly a wrong by any reasonable person's definition).
The incident in Monday night's game was wholy and entirely the result of one player: Spurs journeyman thug Robert Horry.
No Suns players from the bench even so much as attempted to participate in any physical altercation or escalate the situation to any degree.
If your defense of these suspensions is nothing more than "We have to follow the rules and they left the bench," than you, sirs, are devoid of any intellectual honesty.
The NBA's image problems are nothing but the harvest of what the league has sown itself, but even worse, it's ill-conceived "solution" has proven to be more damaging to the spirit of competition, the hard-working teams and the devoted fans than any fight has been yet.
It's no surprise that you have already cancelled plans to attend game five in Phoenix. Nothing could possibly reveal more the fact that you have no confidence in your decision, a fact which should have prevented you from making it in the first place.
Nobody knows what will happen the next two or three games of this series, but league office has certainly assured the outcome on the court will be anything but the result of pure competition.
You sirs have shamed the series and the game and should immediately reverse the suspensions of Stoudemire and Diaw. Barring that, I and a great many fans (of all teams), will have lost any confidence remaining in your abilities to administer the responsibilities of the league office and fully expect your resignation.
Catfish Vegas,
lifelong Arizonan and Suns fan.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Fresh Disorders

Since I randomly shared my favorite quote with two friends lately, I thought I'd also note it here:

"Most of us lead lives of chaotic improvisation from day to day, bawling for peace while plunging grimly into fresh disorders." - Ed Abbey

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Arlo! Concluded...

For a Brooklyn-born hippie best known for a cleverly nonsensical anti-war ballad disguised by 'Aw, shucks' simple-mindedness and a harmless, looping guitar line, Arlo Guthrie is an amazingly complex performer.
The spare stage Sunday night held Arlo, his son Abe on keyboards, a friend switching between pedal steel and mandolin and Arlo's daughter Sarah Lee and son-in-law Johnny, a pair of guitarists and wonderful harmonizing singers.
The wild, white hair of a 59-year-old - Arlo's most dominating physical attribute - is strange considering I've only seen the performer in the oddly dark Alice's Restaurant movie and record covers, where there's a definite boyishness mixed in with the hippie.
I do have a bootleg recording of Arlo doing a short set at a folk festival last summer, so I knew pretty well what to expect from the sound.
The show opened with plenty of Woody songs, including “Oklahoma Hills” and “Talking Dust Bowl Blues.” Arlo's young granddaughter ran out to join her mother in singing the chorus to "Union Maid." And the performance of "1913 Massacre" was beautiful and sad in ways I don't think Woody ever quite wrapped his head around.
Sarah Lee and Johnny sang a couple of their own tunes, which fit right into the Guthrie canon, especially sung in such a delicate harmony. The couple even brought out their own version of "Another Man's Done Gone," after giving some great props to Wilco and Billy Bragg for their Mermaid Avenue records.
An old New Orleans tune, "St. James Infirmary," and a new Arlo composition probably called "In Times Like These" touched on Arlo's experience playing a series of charity shows after Katrina hit the Gulf Coast.
After intermission (intermission?! oh yeah, it's a sit-down folk show with an audience median age of at least 60), Arlo came out with a romping Irish tune to warm up.
Then he hit into "Alice's Restaurant Massacre," the nearly 20-minute career defining tune I thought he'd retired. Still funny and still poignant, the song had me shouting along with the final chorus ("If you want to end war, you have to sing loud") and couldn't have been more uplifting.
Arlo the storyteller took up a lot of the second set, primarily with this long rambling set of loosely connected stories about Australia and flying that Josh and I were pretty sure was a set-up for "Coming into Los Angeles." And eventually it was, after an ever-more-excited Arlo told of flying back into the country once and seeing a man 1,000 miles away smelling his plane, zeroing in on new present - exactly the type of illicit material you'd expect he'd try to smuggle into the States. So Arlo ate it, and when the plane landed he was still flyin' so high that he saw the passengers one by one get sucked down the time tunnel, until he himself was escorted down the time tunnel, where at long last he came face to face with the man who'd been sniffing him for the past 1,000 miles. "Heh, Heh, Heh, You ate it," said the inspector's grin, to which Arlo smiled back "Yep." A circuitous route, to be sure, but hilarious all along the way and "Coming into Los Angeles" indeed followed, a smashing quick and loud version considering there were no drums or amps.
After playing a bit of newly unearthed Woody audio, Arlo sang a Woody tune he'd put music too. Then came the sing-along "This Land is Your Land" to close the show and an encore that started with "City of New Orleans."
All in all it was an amazing show, despite not even hearing my two favorite Arlo tunes - "Motorcycle Song" (which I'm not sure he plays any more) and "Darkest Hour" (which is just about my favorite song of all time, for anybody, and one I know he still plays 'cause it's on that bootleg I have from last summer).

Afterwards, Josh and I discussed the show over a couple of beers, talking about how Arlo bridged his father and the hippies, how the peace and love movement is not only fueled by its songs, but takes comfort in them and drives more new tunes. I'd say that by virtue of the fact that he had Woody as a father and teacher, plus strong friendships from his youth with Pete Seeger and Cisco Houston, Arlo is probably the only great post-Dylan songwriter never influenced by Dylan.
We talked about how the War experiences of both Woody (Merchant Marines) and Johnny Cash (Air Force) only strengthened their individualism. I wouldn't call the experience foundational for either man's character - there were just too many experiences earlier for that - but in a way both men became more isolated by their service, pushed more into the art of song, drawing on that inner artistic strength to push them through the experience (though to my recollection neither faced anything in the way of direct combat, that doesn't mean the service was a comfortable time) and returning more a musician and song-writer than before. Cash was obviously a lot younger during his time in the service than Woody was, but Woody was even more prolific writing songs later in life, though most are just words on paper these days, with thousands of melodies dying inside his head as he succumbed to Huntington's disease.