Wilco: Wilco (The Album)/Son Volt: American Central Dust
Stream Wilco's Wilco (The Album) in its entirety here.
Former bandmates travel familiar territory
Jay Farrar jumped out to an early and commanding lead with Son Volt’s brilliant debut, Trace, which displayed a depth noticeably lacking on Wilco’s debut, A.M. “Windfall,” the lead track from Trace, was a song for the ages and may still be the best track either band has produced. At the time, Farrar was simply a better guitar player, vocalist and songwriter than Tweedy.
But Wilco answered with the epic, two-disc sophomore release Being There. With dissonant psychedelic rock, Beatles-caliber melodies and Exile on Main St. swagger, the album presented Tweedy as an artist to be reckoned with, one with great ambition and growing talent. Wilco continued to mature and explore different aspects of its sound with each subsequent album: There was the shimmering synth pop and underlying darkness of Summerteeth, the experimental deconstructionist mélange of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the hushed introspection and hypnotic kraut-rock of A Ghost is Born, and the surprisingly straightforward, emotionally naked stroll of Sky Blue Sky.
Now, both bands have returned with summer releases that put their respective evolutions on hold, in favor of revisiting past territory.
On Wilco (the album), the band evokes sounds from its entire catalog while mostly continuing in the same angst-free vein of Sky Blue Sky. The opener, “Wilco (the song),” is a love letter to fans: If times are tough, put on your headphones and let Wilco love you, baby. The song’s infectious pop recalls Summerteeth, though the lyrics are only possible from a rejuvenated Tweedy. “One Wing” is a melancholy number (“One wing will never fly / Neither yours nor mine / I fear we can only wave goodbye”) that would be at home on Sky Blue Sky. “Sonny Feeling” is an ambling rocker that sounds like it was lifted from the Being There sessions.
The album is full of thoughtful, artfully crafted lyrics wrapped in memorable hooks that should stand the test of time. What’s missing is the experimentation that was Wilco’s hallmark until Sky Blue Sky. Tweedy has said the band wanted to use the studio as an instrument on this release, and if you listen closely enough, you can hear them subtly exploring. However, the songs are constrained to the three-to-five minute formula and are overlaid with a sheen that chokes their potential; this band works best when its members are unleashed to create the kind of jarring moments that made earlier albums unforgettable, if frustrating at times. The new album’s biggest weakness is that it’s too smooth, too much the same despite all its echoes of the band’s disparate previous work. Perhaps Wilco is missing a little of the interpersonal dissonance once offered by the late Jay Bennett.
On Son Volt’s new American Central Dust, Farrar retrenches and attempts to recall the simplicity and power of Trace. He summons familiar themes and characters: forlorn lovers, rustbelt workers, corrupt powers and the search for meaning. “Honky tonks and biker bars / Finding worth in this world / From inside a rental car” he sings in “Roll On,” evoking the motif of “Windfall.” The aching slide guitar of “Dust of Daylight” recalls Trace’s “Tear Stained Eye.” While American Central Dust falls short of Trace’s heights, the album showcases Farrar’s excellent songwriting, which is comfortingly familiar. It’s also a little monotonous.
Farrar’s strongest asset—his drawling voice—is also his biggest weakness, so distinctive and powerful that it constantly threatens to overwhelm the songs. Each tune competes for attention with that wonderful instrument. With Farrar’s unchanging vocal delivery, this becomes a near-fatal flaw. Faithful listeners can predict the cadence and intensity, the rise and fall of each syllable. Combine that with predictable melodies (tap, tap, tap, drone / tap, tap, tap, drone) and the songs become hard to distinguish, making the album a bit of a chore to slog through, despite all the great songs.
Nearly 20 years after Uncle Tupelo’s first release, both Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar have proven themselves as great American songwriters. Tweedy has clearly been the more restless (and satisfying) artist—the one constantly seeking new influences and excavating new sounds while exploring his innermost self and his world with unflinching candor. While Farrar has continued to mine familiar territory, at least he is digging in rich and fertile ground.
Listen to Son Volt's American Central Dust on MySpace.