The Palace at 4 AM (Part 1)collaboration between former Wilco second-banana Jay Bennett and Chicago roots fixture Edward Burch, is like the pop music version of An Affair to Remember. Bennett and Burch met years ago while both were kingpins in the Champaign, Ill., pop scene and, after some tentative jams yielded actual songs, vowed to work together as soon as humanly possible. Bennett’s eventual Wilco membership and voluminous session work and Burch’s manic multiple band affiliations (the Kennett Brothers, the Handsome Family, Viper & His Famous Orchestra, among others) all conspired against the pair’s desire to hook up in the studio.
With the end of Bennett’s Wilco run and a slight lessening of Burch’s band duties, the time seemed right to finally record some of the dozens of songs the pair had written together in every moment they could squeeze from their itineraries. The song archive was impressive; Bennett and Burch originally planned to make The Palace at 4 AM (Part 1) and compiled them into one of the best pop releases of the year.
It has been smirkingly suggested that Reprise would not have dropped Wilco if they had delivered an album with half the pop chops of Bennett and Burch’s album. From the George Harrison guitar homage on The Palace’s opener “Puzzle Heart” to the Beatles reference at the top of “Drinking on Your Dime,” it’s clear that B&B have created a work that may be less sonically challenging than its Tweedy counterpart but is no less engaging. Bennett and Burch’s genre mastery is further cemented with the Americana pop luster of “Talk to Me,” the jangly folk of “Whispers and Screams” and the anthemic lope of “No Church Tonite.”
The Palace at 4 AM was originally envisioned by the pair as a spare acoustic work, but their ambitions got the better of them. They wound up incorporating a who’s who of pop royalty on the album, including Wilco’s John Stirratt, original Wilco member Max Johnston, former Elvis Bros. drummers Brad Elvis and John Richardson, and pop genius Adam Schmitt. While Bennett and Burch hew closely to their avowed influences (early Bee Gees, John Cale’s Paris 1919, Badfinger, George Harrison, mid-period Elvis Costello), the pair has made a fascinating album that stands with the gorgeous power of Wilco’s Summerteeth and the best of the Pernice Brothers or Beulah. The incredible baroque pop accomplishment of The Palace at 4 AM may well be Bennett and Burch’s last hotel-alpha-hotel-alpha in the whole Wilco affair.