[21 March 2006]
Aren’t we all these days? Haven’t we all gone through a spiritual rebirth at some point in the past five years, since that one infamous event… you know… the advent of personal MP3 players? Whether you’re a devout audiophile (i.e., you understand how vinyl sounds “warm”) or as casual a fan as Marge Simpson (“Music is none of my business”), it’s undeniable that the experience of listening to recorded music has undergone dramatic changes in the aught-whatevers. Songs are chewed through and spat out before their hooks have half a chance and then it’s on to the next 99-cent meltaway. But many musicians are still devoted to the album, and the relevance of sitting down in the privacy of one’s home and sitting through one start to finish.
In a recent interview with Paste, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy testified that “... recorded music is like literature when you allow yourself to sit and listen.” In that respect, the latest from Loose Fur, Tweedy’s side project with Jim O’Rourke and Glenn Kotche, is like reading an Archie comic book with a Chekhovian subtext—the smarts are all there, but so is Jughead! With its combination of pop and circumstance, Born Again runs laps around its lumbering self-titled predecessor, and might even have a chance against short attention spans, yours and mine.
Four songs longer and two minutes shorter than Loose Fur, Born Again is thrice as nimble and a baker’s dozen more assured. Compare openers: the debut’s “Laminated Cat/Not For the Seasons” dribbled in texture by texture, with Tweedy mumbling in his charming, hangdog way; “Hey Chicken” has no time for all that jazz, it just puts boot to ass. Harmonizing guitars call for more cowbell, and are answered. Rhythms stutter and skip, but are still driven inexorably to rawk. Tweedy has rarely sounded so cocksure, taking steady shots at a jealous contemporary, “I hear you whisper / I hear you whine / I hear you hanging on a sourgrape vine / … hey chicken you’re all talk.” He even throws in a taunting “boo-hoo” halfway through, before talking about the dude’s sister. Harsh! It all translates to “fun”, which is vital in context. Considering that Loose Fur’s primary audience is Wilco (and to a lesser extent Jim O’Rourke) fans, it’s got to take something unique and engaging to get them to spin a record other than Yankee Hotel Foxtrot for the umpteenth time. In this case, it’s balls.
“The Ruling Class” continues the provocation with lines like “Christ is on his way across town / ... he’s back Jack, smoking crack, find him if you wanna get found”, sunny acoustic guitars, and whistling. The lyrics, co-penned by O’Rourke and Tweedy, are a razor-sharp satire of corporate fat cats and cash-obsessed culture, imagining Jesus as a Dubya-style CEO, drinking beers like one of the guys while filing “dependent claims on all of mankind.” It’s the opposite of Woody Guthrie’s “Christ For President”, to which Tweedy provided the music on the Mermaid Avenue project a few years back, where J.C. cast the money changers out of the temple and provided for all. The difference between the two songs highlights not only the very deep shit we’re all in, but a new facet in Tweedy’s writing. With the breathing room afforded by the relatively spotlight-free Loose Fur, Tweedy is free to explore wit in addition to his famous earnestness.
O’Rourke takes almost the opposite tack on “Answers to Your Questions”, softening his usual verbal barbs in the gorgeous atmosphere conjured by Kotche’s distant, rumbling percussion, elegant soloing, and vibes in the song’s second half. Never one to pull punches, O’Rourke can’t resist a joke, “You always write to ask / How come I don’t write back / I could tell you / But then I’d have to write…” But instead of leaving it there, he stretches the thought into something more than merely clever, “... A letter that would start / I finally found in my heart not to forgive you.” At an early point in the album, O’Rourke is playing the straight man to Tweedy’s joker, and again we’re compelled not to fast-forward or spin the click-wheel.
The rest of the album doesn’t disappoint, either. And since this is literature, I won’t spoil the book or tell you where the personalities end up. It’s enough to say that Born Again in the USA is as worthy as side projects get, an album you’d want to pay attention to even if you’d never heard of its antecedents. It could save you.