Wilco/Joe Henry/Tom Waits

ANTI- distribution deals aside, these three are united by a warped take on Americana that, on the evidence below, just keeps on giving. If you thought the last couple Wilco albums contained some very good songs, but that Jeff Tweedy wasn’t using the excellent musicians around him as well as he could, this one’s for you. And if Joe and Tom don’t arrive with quite as many surprises this time around, know that there’s a difference between a rut and a groove.

Wilco: The Whole Love
You’ll be hard pressed to find a review of Wilco’s eighth album that doesn’t fixate on the stunners that bookend it. You may have heard less about the excellent songs that lie between “Art of Almost” and “One Sunday Morning.” Not since the acrimonious departure—and, then, untimely death—of Tweedy foil Jay Bennett has a Wilco album sounded so much like a team effort. Nels Cline still shreds plenty, but where his guitar work once seemed designed to leap out from the arrangement every time one of Tweedy’s tunes was in need of a bailout—see: Sky Blue Sky—it’s now as likely to slink as thrash. The return to prominence of John Stirratt’s bass lines, meanwhile, may serve to remind us why he is the lone original member of Wilco besides Tweedy who remains in the band 16 years after A.M. For the first time in its history, Wilco has gone three straight albums without a lineup change, and whether or not constancy among musicians is what makes this one such a success, constancy has always been at the heart of what Tweedy does. “It’s all one song,” Neil Young famously admonished a heckler who told him all his songs sounded the same. Like Young, Tweedy is an artist with an emotional through-line, more felt than articulated, that unifies his work regardless of stylistic diversion. Here as ever, he is pushing down his own road, toward the place where you don’t have to feel so distant, and can stop telling lies for love. Those journeys are easier when the band’s got your back. A
***
Joe Henry: Reverie
I am so sympathetic to Joe Henry’s worldview that I’m inclined to let him go on for hours without asking too many questions. By my count, he has made three masterpieces, and I wish I could say this was one of them. After two albums of craft and formalism, Henry aims for immediacy: surrounding himself with terrific musicians he wouldn’t presume to micromanage, he presses record and shouts go. The music, a shambling jazz-folk that happens before your ears, is thrilling. Likewise, Henry’s lyrical sketches of life lived moment-to-moment are just right for an album so concerned with the experience—not just the passage, but the experience—of time. The problem is that Henry has become such a poetic writer he occasionally trips on his own language; a lyric like “I dig in the dirt/and yank at the root/of a shadow’s dark vein/in a story gone mute” rhymes real nice, and is so fussy it only affirms my belief that poets and songwriters have very different jobs. He lands on the right side of that line far more often than the wrong one, but he spends enough time on the line itself to make me wonder what happened to the iconoclast who once professed a desire to work with Dr. Dre. That’s an affront to dignified taste I hope comes to pass. For now, I’m thankful for any album that ends with poetry as unfussy as this: “I’m an hour from arriving/and three from where I rose to go/and maybe two from where I’ll find you/between the world and all I know.” Maybe, just maybe, time has come today. A-
***
Tom Waits: Bad As Me
Now 61, Tom Waits is writing with an urgency the whippersnappers who worship him should envy, and then learn from. The music on his 17th studio album admittedly won’t send anyone to the thesaurus in search of fresh adjectives, but the songs themselves are as generous as ever, and more timely than those who accuse Waits of shtick have likely bothered to notice. “Hell Broke Luce” continues a string of anti-war songs—begun with 2004’s “The Day After Tomorrow” and deepened with 2006’s “The Road To Peace”—no current songwriter young enough to fight can touch; “Talking At The Same Time” details chaos with disarming calm; and “New Year’s Eve” uses “Auld Lang Syne” to express the weary hopes of the downtrodden even better than Waits’ own “A Sight For Sore Eyes,” a song written a generation ago in rock years. Speaking of which, the most extreme moment of beauty on the album happens when Keith Richards himself shows up to harmonize on “Last Leaf,” a survivor’s song that manages to be weary and noble and funny all at the same time. A-
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