- The Washington Times - Monday, May 14, 2007

Wilco

Sky Blue Sky

Nonesuch

Immediately upon hearing “Either Way,” the alarmingly saccharine opening track of Wilco’s latest album, “Sky Blue Sky,” I began searching Jeff Tweedy’s back catalog for hints of previously undetected sentimentality. The bouncing piano intros on such songs as “Hell Is Chrome” and “Theologians” on the 2004 release “A Ghost Is Born” suggested the alt-country icon might be leading his band to a low-concept pop landscape where gentleness is compulsory and edginess is kicked to the curb.

But nothing could have prepared me for the unapologetically soft-rocking strains of “Either Way,” which begins with the blending of a warm and airy organ line and the kind of gently picked acoustic guitar part that might make James Taylor blush in recognition. The vocals begin with the line, “Maybe the sun will shine today/The clouds’ll blow away.” Not long after that, a swelling violin line is introduced that builds to a noodling guitar solo that hints at what Kenny G. might sound like if he dropped his alto sax and picked up a Fender Jazzmaster.

“Either Way” feels like an idea gone horribly wrong, but it does not feel like an accident. If nothing else, Mr. Tweedy and his band mates show a remarkable dedication to a singular sound throughout “Sky Blue Sky” — it really feels like an album, recorded in a few sessions by musicians who knew exactly what they wanted to do. The drums are played with a light touch, the guitar parts, with a few exceptions, are honeyed and sweet. Often a simple, untethered organ line hovers over the melody.

Part of the blame here has to go to guitarist Nels Cline. Mr. Cline’s talent and technical skills are not in dispute, but on “Sky Blue Sky,” he shows a lamentable bent for dulcet tones and trills that would be more at home in light jazz. He has a knack for making even distorted power chords sound chipper and friendly.

Only on “You Are My Face” does Mr. Cline offer a glimmer of the electric guitar’s menacing, dangerous potential. He lays low on the title track, “Sky Blue Sky,” offering a more minimalist sound, with the eerie moans of a pedal steel guitar playing around a brushed snare. Mr. Tweedy’s voice here is reduced to nearly a whisper; his lyrics are more evocative and imagistic and less plaintive and inane.

Wilco’s hard-core fans are famously dedicated, having chosen up sides after Mr. Tweedy’s split from his one-time friend and partner Jay Farrar, with whom he founded the pathbreaking band Uncle Tupelo — the band that virtually invented the genre of alt-country.

Mr. Tweedy’s fans have followed his career through many transformations; it will be interesting to see how they respond in concert to his new softer side.

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