These poor guys. They lost the girl, and are they blue! Their new songs are all gloom, doom, and gloom again, start to finish, soup to nuts. But not to worry. They tossed their twang, too, not an unusual tactic these days, what with alt.country transitioning from movement to stasis, and so now they’re getting respect. “Wilco’s dark pop masterpiece,” says Sonicnet of Summer Teeth. Rolling Stone on the new Old 97’s disc: “often genius.”
Fact is, that’s close. Both bands sprang so boldly off the creative ledge for these albums that you have to admire their sheer élan. Wilco’s evolution from a (the) sensitive country-punk band into a unit willing to deploy electronics, symphonics, and anything else that serves their purpose sounds like the special project of Jay Bennett, whose keyboards erect most of the sonic architecture around Jeff Tweedy’s near suicidal songs. Themed sonically as a dead-on channeling of the great boomer depressives—Len non, Reed, Young, and especially Brian Wilson—Summer Teeth is an ambitious project, its goal nothing less than the dramatic transmutation of pain into beauty. Wilco work skillfully enough to make this oldest trick of the composer’s trade seem spontaneous. That’s also true of the Old 97’s, whose own interest in rock history runs more to its palette of guitar styles and its somewhat less dramatic transmutation of pain into good times. Rhett Miller, the Dallas band’s front man and songwriter, may say he thinks “it’s weird that we had so much fun” recording songs driven by “anger, discontent, and regret.” But fiddling while you burn is a grand tradition. Just ask Beck. Or Gram, for that matter. Sorry to mention Him, fellas—we do recognize your ascension from alt. and honestly hope things pan out as well commercially as they have creatively.
The twang isn’t gone entirely, for you can still feel the bones of a smart-mouthed Bloodshot Records counter-country quartet beneath the Old 97’s’ growing rock-pop muscles. Not that it matters. What does is the snap and crackle of their songs. In that respect, Fight Songs is in fact as crisp a treat as the V-Roys’ neglected but ultra-engaging All About Town—looser, though, a little more punk than tight, and of course a lot more downhearted. Lyrically, that is; musically it couldn’t be more fun. “Jagged,” track one, is a romping rock anthem replete with Ragged Glory guitar and a sing-along chorus delivered with the kind of nihilistic glee you were afraid might be retired after Joey Ramone asked to be sedated. “I…I would give any thing,” wails Miller, “…not to feel so jagged.”
That’s a great pop moment, and only one among many: “Alone So Far”‘s so melodious atmospherics; the pure ’80s pep of “Oppenheimer” (a street name, not the Bomb doc, near as we can tell); the exuberant vim of “Nineteen” and the sheer rock-bop jollity of “Murder (or a Heart At tack)”; those rich rock chimes and jangles on “Lonely Holiday” and “What We Talk About,” the latter almost Catalan (Tex-Mex be damned) and ola! so sophisticated. Throughout you’ve got all sorts of high-tone references, from early Elvis Costello to Big Star to a strong echo of Colin Blunstone’s post-Zombie sound, and—well, say it again, just tons of fun. Melodies, harmonies, ironies, insights, variety, and beats you can dance to. Nice going, guys. Talk about a band with a future.
However closely Fight Songs and Summer Teeth align in genre-bust timing, they diverge in mood. Summer Teeth, Wilco’s first album since the magical Bragg-Guthrie Mermaid Avenue,
is beautiful, but not fun. Those cold, lonely
jacket photographs speak volumes; nobody has a home here, they’re adrift anywhere, unnaturally disconnected, living (or dying) in their heads. Which may just be the musicians’ curse—the road, the road—but could as easily be morphine, genetic predisposition, whatever. Certainly it’s a woman gone or going, inspiring murder (“I dreamed about killing you again last night/And it felt alright to me”), suicidal contemplation (“Hey ho/Look out below/Your prayers will
never be answered again”), and various other awful, shitty ideas that Tweedy and company caress with infinite care in a long sweet labor of antilove. What results is a kind of aural spell, a glowing, gorgeous miasma of sensual self-loathing.
Audiowise, think Lou Reed sampling Pet Sounds and you might get the pic. Tweedy has both the guts and the head to make the comparison relevant, and besides, his Brian Wilson–Sgt. Pepper references are so direct that they have to be intentional. Reed’s legacy testifies loudest in the bass lines (e.g., “Sweet Jane” driving “We’re Just Friends”) and a certain freezing-cold clarity of observation and image; it’s the model, conscious or not, for Summer Teeth‘s attachment to the earth.
Speaking of which, let’s hope Tweedy is able to achieve something closer to Reed’s corporeal and spiritual resilience than Wilson’s alternative. Or Gram’s.