Music

Wilco: Sky Blue Sky

Michael Metivier
WILCO [Photo: Frank W. Ockenfels 3]

If you're prone to confusing honest musical maturity with banality, then you'll surely miss out on the treasures of Sky Blue Sky.


Wilco

Sky Blue Sky

Label: Nonesuch
US Release Date: 2007-05-15
UK Release Date: 2007-05-14
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There is already considerable opinion and criticism in print and on the internet regarding Wilco’s sixth studio album. I’m writing this review approximately one month after the band streamed Sky Blue Sky in its entirety via its website (and the subsequent file-sharing leak of massive proportions) and one month before the album’s official release on aluminum poly-whatever. I’ve listened to the album countless times, and am fairly steeped in the consternation, confusion, and griping surrounding its songs, production, direction, lyrics, etc., in the reams of web and other chatter. No doubt you’re familiar with it as well, even if you haven’t heard the record yet, which, where the hell have you been? I can also understand a lot of the present and future complaints with Sky Blue Sky, because at various points I’ve shared them: the album is too slick, oddly unexperimental, straightforward, sentimental, embarrassingly direct. But lately I’ve had to face the awkward truth that despite my initial misgivings, I’ve listened to the album more than any other released in 2007 thus far, and there’s no stopping in sight.

Since the breakup of Uncle Tupelo, every album Jeff Tweedy has released with Wilco has faced mountains of expectation as to how it will and should sound. At the same time, every Wilco record has consistently defied those expectations in one way or another. It’s the same vicious cycle that exists with many bands, but somehow feels more pronounced with Wilco, particularly since the band has been erroneously dubbed the “American Radiohead” since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Sky Blue Sky makes it clear that the band is nothing more or less than the American Wilco, and that anyone still holding onto hope of sonic experimentalism and whatever is deemed “groundbreaking” at any given point, is setting themselves up for disappointment. The artistic failure or success of Sky Blue Sky should not be evaluated on the scale of how progressive it is, but I fear it will be, which is a shame because the album is solid in accomplishing its own objectives. A soulful, sad, yet ultimately hopeful document largely about putting a brave face in the midst of a dissolving relationship, indulging influences from Bill Fay to Charles Wright to Steve Miller, Sky Blue Sky is the rare, mature album where said maturity is seldom compromised by banality.

At first, I was sure of what I knew to be wrong with Sky Blue Sky; I had it all figured out, and couldn’t wait to tell you all about it. The thing I loved best about Wilco, I decided, was when they stretched themselves beyond their on-paper capabilities. Following the dismissal of Jay Bennett, for example, Jeff Tweedy decided it was up to him to handle lead guitar duties for the first time, resulting in fractured, nerve-rattling solos in live performances (most notably on “At Least That’s What You Said”, from 2004’s A Ghost Is Born). I also happen to regard that album as the band’s best effort for the same reason that, as a whole, it tries way more than it reasonably should, and is a beautiful, sprawling mess for it. In starkest contrast, Sky Blue Sky is cohesive, consistent, and smooth. Tweedy called it the easiest record to make the band has ever done, and it’s obvious from first listen. The now six-piece outfit glides through every song like consummate professionals, with no ten-minute droning outros, ecstatic collapses, or squalls of found noise. The instrumental palette is classic rock all the way: guitars, drums, bass, keys, maybe some strings ... that’s all, thank you very much. And the production is squeaky clean; the blood and guts and feedback mopped up, or at least made to smell pine fresh -- all of which led me to decide early on that the whole affair was a big, unchallenging mistake.

But the paradox is that while Sky Blue Sky is the smoothest sounding Wilco album, it also takes the longest to absorb and understand. Songs that float by like pillowy stars ultimately reveal themselves to be just as dense and combustible as “Misunderstood” over time. The title track, for instance, instantly sounds like a knock-off of Being There’s “Far, Far Away”, with its waltz tempo and similar chord progression. Did the band goof, forget that they’ve already been down the same road before? Maybe --- but a more plausible theory is that “Sky Blue Sky” is the intentional flipside of its predecessor. “Far, Far Away” was a night song, a traveling song, a "miss you" song from an itinerant lover who can’t wait to get back home and “kiss and ride on the CTA”. “Sky Blue Sky” sits at the other end of the relationship, after all of the physical separation and distance have taken their toll. Optimistic longing is replaced by doleful resignation, “With a sky blue sky / This rotten time wouldn’t seem so bad to me now”, Tweedy sings in a bummed out mumble, while streaks of pedal steel careen over the folksy strum of an acoustic guitar. That the song is cousin to the touching sweetness of “Far, Far Away” is appropriate because the loneliness of each is the same, and the reasons are different, but related.

WILCO [Photo: Chris Strong]

“Hate It Here” shows off remarkable soul in Tweedy’s vocal as he describes domestic duties he’s now charged with performing post-breakup, “I try to stay busy / I do the dishes, I mow the lawn / I try to keep myself occupied / Even though I know you’re not coming home”. The arrangement is rich but uncluttered, focusing on R&B-flavored organ, spikes of lead guitar, and warmly zooming bass in the first half of the song. Halfway through, the tone shifts as Tweedy rasps, “I hate it here / When you’re gone”, as harmonizing electric guitars stomp around in lockstep with Glenn Kotche’s drums, funky and playful. A record or two ago, the instruments would bleed their noise all over the song, or get dressed up in layers of static, but every tone and color is now tightly composed and in place. “Hate It Here”, like most of Sky Blue Sky, isn’t about being in shambles, it’s about trying to move on, heal, and grow. There’s a humorous aspect to the song as well, inherent in the singer’s complaints about housework, as if the singer wishes his lover back simply because he wouldn’t have to change his sheets or fold laundry any more, as the boy who never grew up is finally responsible for his own grooming and upkeep. But the listener knows, particularly with the bluster of the song’s crescendo, there’s much more at stake.

“I’ve turned to rust as we’ve discussed / Though I must’ve let you down too many times”, Tweedy admits on “You Are My Face”, after a lengthy string of the stream-of-consciousness wordplay he’s become increasingly fond of (check: “ordinary beehives”, “I hate you hate you hangin’ ‘round my blue jeans”). On the whole, however, Sky Blue Sky is peopled by far fewer aquarium drinkers and bee muzzles than other outings, and even the occasional muddy verse is eventually shot through with insight. Sometimes, as in “You Are My Face”, clarity comes immediately to the rescue via conversational, rather than imagistic, language. “I have no idea how this happens / All of my maps have been over thrown / Happenstance has changed my plans / So many times”, Tweedy yelps through moody swirls of organ and piano and shifting rhythms. Other times, a song makes better sense in context with the rest. “Impossible Germany” seems impenetrable with the repeated phrase, “Impossible Germany / Unlikely Japan / Wherever you go / Wherever you land”. But considered with the album’s recurring themes of relationship dissolution, the invocation of two of the three WWII Axis powers starts to make sense, even as just a vague association with threatening forces. “This is important / But I know you’re not listening” gives way to Nels Cline’s trembling lead guitar pointillism that trains the song more toward melancholy than outright despair. The leads get progressively more involved over the song’s six minutes, as the lyrics seek at least temporary resolution, “With no larger problems / That need to be erased / Nothing more important than to know / Someone’s listening / Now I know / You’ll be listening”.

Those lines from “Impossible Germany” could very well be the crux of the entire record, the need to reestablish even just the most basic communication, to rebuild, make things okay. The gentle, fingerpicked “Be Patient With Me” more explicitly addresses the singer’s need to reach some understanding. Utilizing one of the sparest, simplest arrangements of any Wilco song on record, Tweedy whispers his words, delicately underscoring the mission at hand with painful sincerity, “How can I warn you when my tongue turns to dust / Like we’ve discussed / It doesn’t mean that I don’t care / It doesn’t mean that I don’t care / You’re gonna need to be patient with me”. The intensely personal and conversational tone is sure to unsettle those who’ve grown accustomed to spiders and kidsmoke, and it might even strike some as dull, but I find Tweedy’s words all over Sky Blue Sky to be some of the most affecting and least clumsy of his career.

WILCO [Photo: Michael Segal]

The improved balance between directness and poetics has enhanced the quality of both aspects of Tweedy’s writing. The best example of this is “Side With the Seeds”, which combines the two styles in a disarmingly gorgeous soul setting. After a riffling drum roll, Tweedy paints a city scene with effective, efficient language, “Tires type black / Where the blacktop cracks / Weeds spark through / Dark green enough to be blue”. The second half of the verse then takes the images further to interpret them, “When the mysteries we believe in / Aren’t dreamed enough to be true / Some side with the leaves / Some side with the seeds”. The band has rarely sounded better, the crisp production allowing every element in the mix enough space to shine through. The piano-organ tandem comes out of the speakers almost perceptibly golden, with Tweedy’s rasp leading the charge through stylistic territory that, while not carrying the “future of rock” burden on its back, is at least fairly new to the band. “You and I will be undefeated / By agreeing to disagree”, Tweedy offers in the second verse, and in the third, “Embracing the situation / Is our only chance to be free / I’ll side with you / If you side with me”. The exact nature of the situation is never stated, but the song is just specific enough to inspire confidence in its truth, and just vague enough to allow listeners to insert their own lives and relationships into its meaning. The closing seconds of “Side With the Seeds” are a firestorm of Cline’s lead guitar that offset the composure and wisdom of the lyrics with tension and uncertainty, but still without fuzz or distortion. It’s as if the song could spin off and out of control at any moment, but steadfastly refuses to do so.

The album is bookended by similar poles of confidence and unease. “Either Way” opens Sky Blue Sky with Zen-like calm, “Maybe you still love me / Maybe you don’t / Either you will or you won’t”. The song is breezy and unconcerned, its guitars glossy and rippling, its pace unhurried. “Maybe you just need some time alone / I will try to understand / Everything has its plan”, Tweedy sings ... “Either way / I’m gonna stay / Right for you”. The language is plain, but the emotions conveyed are complicated. It’s difficult to hear the song and not be moved by the candor, especially as performed by the band without coming off as overwrought. The band, augmented by little swells of strings, reassures the voice just it attempts to reassure itself. The closer, “On and On and On”, works the same way, but with a much higher degree of doubt. The song is built on a foundation of suspenseful minor piano chords, over which Tweedy declares “On and on and on we’ll stay together yeah / On and on and on we’ll be together yeah”, and as much as you want to believe him, the odds feel far more stacked than they did on “Either Way”. “One day we’ll disappear together in a dream / However short or long our lives are going to be / Please don’t cry” -- match these lines up against Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s closer, “I’ve got reservations / About so many things / But not about you”, and it’s a struggle not to get a bit misty-eyed. If it wasn’t clear from the first track, it should definitely be by now that these are songs without defenses, from the autumnal “Leave Me (Like You Found Me)” to the brotherly “What Light”. And it’s that generosity, coupled with exquisitely beautiful melodies and performances that should be celebrated and embraced, not suspected. Here’s hoping.

9

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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