I'm going to be brave and shoot my credibility as a reviewer in the foot by saying I simply don't like Bob Dylan. Oh, don't get me wrong, I marvel at and appreciate the man's place at the center of cultural change in the 1960s. I recognize his importance as a musician, and I think he's among the most gifted and poetic songwriters to have come out of the 20th century. But, within the limited field of exposure I have to the Dylan catalog, other musicians play his songs better than he does. I'd rather hear the Indigo Girls perform "Tangled Up in Blue" over Bobby any day. For that matter, I don't think Dylan should have won his recent Oscar, either, but we all know what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has become.
This only has peripheral relevance to Little Wings at best, but it's a necessary disclaimer. You see, Little Wings is the moniker of Kyle Field, a singer-songwriter who in the best possible way could be described as "Dylanesque". Field has an incredible gift for lyricism. His imagery is visceral, slightly surreal, and rich. Both simple and complex rhyme schemes are handled with what seems like fluid ease. Musically, Little Wings operates as a collective of guest musicians, but even then there's a sparse transparency to the sounds and the listener's focus remains squarely on Field.
But then there's Field's voice. Simultaneously rough and fragile, twangy and spare, it takes some getting used to. And, like Dylan, that voice's delivery can get in the way of the songs. From the moment "Filled with Wonder" cues up on the stereo, the warbling, often off-key voice of Kyle Field draws you like a car-wreck. You don't want to listen, it's almost painful, but it's also strangely compelling. When he's taking it easy and settling into his own range, he sounds too much like Dave Matthews to make an impression. When his voice reaches for a high note and comes just short of cracking completely, you think you might be listening to a junior high talent show gone horribly wrong. The extremely low-fi production doesn't help.
But that's all part of Field's experiment in music. This Oregon via California artist has built the Little Wings experience on combining a rootsy, alt-country twang with some folksy, neo-hippie logic. The "band" is merely a collection of friends, assembled to perform on different tracks, and Field goes to some lengths to portray himself as the kind of guy you'd find strumming his guitar in a park along the beach. Or, perhaps more accurately, as a rough and tumble street musician composing odd ditties with his hat upturned on the sidewalk to collect change. And he pulls it off. Almost too well.
The shame of this is that some of these songs are pure gems. The most immediately charming track is "Shredder Sequel", a tune that resurrects a character called the Shredder who appeared in a song of the same name on the first Little Wings album, Discover Worlds of Wonder. On the first album, the Shredder was a skateboarding legend, revered for his abilities with a board. But here, on Wonderue, we find the Shredder some years later, a burnout who still clings vainly to his past glories and cries at night in the realization that he's living in the past, and his street fame was worn out completely. It's a sad song, to be sure, but not a little bit funny as well. It also tells the story of a aged scenester in such honest and sympathetic detail that the Shredder moves beyond the boundaries of the skatepark and becomes an icon of all burnouts. In short, it's witty and insightful and touching all at once.
Immediately following "Shredder Sequel" is the fabulous "When You Know Love", the only entry on Wonderue that completely deviates from the guitar format. Trip-hop inspired, the musical track consists primarily of an excellent bass line and a simple drum machine track, with flourishes of jazzy vibes. Vocally, Field sounds like a country boy flexing his flow, but he really shines here. The lyrics on this track display Field's way with imagery and continuity of language. It's a song that could easily appeal to fans of Soul Coughing, G Love and Special Sauce, and Portishead in equal numbers.
But things aren't 100% for this disc. Much of the time, the extremely mellow and languid voice of Field is so hypnotic that it's hard to really pay attention to the songs. Tracks like "Filled With Wonder", "Faith Children", "Treat It Kind", "Si Si", and "I Saw Reflections" have both musically interesting and lyrically compelling moments aplenty. But, unfortunately, these songs all come in the first half of the album. By the time Wonderue closes with "So I Finally Belong to the Night", you're waking yourself from the sleepy lull and wondering where time and the other songs have gone.
Wonderue represents the culmination of "the Wonder Triolgy", three consecutive albums from Field that deal with various aspects of the notion of wonder. As a triptych, Wonderue is the closing moment, and thus lends itself to falling action, but that doesn't save it from having to stand on its own. Field has already announced the release of another album, Light Green Leaves, slated for a September release, so it may be that now that the "Wonder" project is completed, he's ready to move into new territory. That would be a good thing, for at the least Wonderue continues to highlight Field's presence as a great songwriter. Hopefully, some future musicians will discover these albums and release some lovely (and perhaps superior) cover tunes.