- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 4, 2002

WILCO

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

(Nonesuch Records)

You have to wonder about the executives at Reprise Records. Last year, the label rejected Wilco's new album, "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," dubbing it "unreleasable." It's a mean call for a band that never embraced mainstream audiences in the first place.

Did the record company expect Pink-sized sales from the mercurial band?

Listen to "Foxtrot" for the first time and you might cut those niggardly executives some slack. It's as inaccessible as a Dennis Miller rant at times. Dense melodies follow feedback-drenched moments, like Beck's catalog dumped in a Cuisinart.

With patience, though, the songs' merits become a bit clearer.

The album, made available online months before to its release by Wilco's new label, Nonesuch, tracks the band's mutation from critical darlings to, likely, commercial pariahs.

Alternately sweet and mystical, "Hotel" finds Wilco in an experimental mood, marrying its unerring pop instincts with an esoteric blend of electronica and drum kits.

Jeff Tweedy sings as if either the world's weight were upon his shoulders, or he hasn't the energy left to shrug off his heaviest thoughts.

On heartier numbers, such as "Heavy Metal Drummer," his somnambulistic delivery stirs, buoyed by a bracing rhythm section and lyrics meant to do nothing more than tease.

"War on War" uses its disarmingly catchy chorus to distract from its real purpose.

"You have to learn how to die if you want to be alive" is a sentiment disturbingly prescient given the times in which we live. Although Mr. Tweedy mentions "tall buildings shake" and evokes images of burning flags, the album was cut before September 11.

"Reservations" offers up a plaintive love song set to gentle piano chords. "I've got reservations about so many things, but not about you," Mr. Tweedy warbles. The song then digresses into a soupy mix of sound, with the band's normally assured touch all but lost.

The only remnants of Wilco's alt-country roots appear on "Pot Kettle Black," a gorgeous track with acoustic strumming so loose it sounds as if the guitar strings might snap free any second.

"Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" won't make those Reprise executives curse their lack of foresight. Bottom line feeders wouldn't touch "Foxtrot" with a 10-foot record contract. The album does show, however, a band willing to stretch, to scrape the sky of possibilities, often with thrilling consequences. Christian Toto


MOTORHEAD

Hammered

(Metal-Is Records)

It's been a long time since Lemmy Kilmister and his rotating cast of assistants have been important. While Motorhead's speed-fueled bursts of perfectly honed metal captivated packed stadiums 20 years ago, "Ace of Spades" is over and these days it's more fun to see Lemmy shopping at Ralphs on Sunset Boulevard than to listen to anything he might have concocted to pay his bills.

"Hammered" the 21st Motorhead release is another entry for the resale bins. It indicates that like that old Pontiac in the garage, Motorhead has simply run out of steam actually, the band has coasted on fumes for at least a decade. If you want Motorhead at its epoch, get a copy of 1981's "No Sleep 'til Hammersmith," one of the best live albums made.

The high points here are the anthems. "Down the Line" is a tumbling mass of guitars and Lemmy's throaty, urgent and familiar vocal. "Walk a Crooked Mile" has elemental fury, big guitar and, yea, that voice.

It's what Lemmy does for a living and after 27 years leading Motorhead, he makes music that has been played before. This is an improvement in one regard today's pop heroes also play Motorhead, they just dress it up and call it their own. So give that to Lemmy. History does have its dividends. Steve Miller


PAUL WESTERBERG

Stereo, Mono

(Vagrant Records)

Got a beef with an ex-girlfriend? Paul Westerberg has an album for you. Two, in fact. The ex-Replacements front man ends a nearly four year recording silence with the simultaneous release of "Stereo" and "Mono." Both albums boast their fair share of confessional-style lyrics, putting past loves in their place with such pleasure that Mr. Westerberg probably smiled through tears penning them.

The albums come on the belated heels of 1999's "Suicaine Gratification," a release as jumbled as its moniker suggests.

Here, the singer-songwriter splits himself into the unapologetic rocker ("Mono") and the maturing songwriter ("Stereo") who pricks the listener's skin with his jagged voice.

The albums, recorded on quick takes in Mr. Westerberg's cellar studio, reflect a fortysomething musician unsure of his next musical path. So he cheats and gives us two divergent discs to mull.

"Mono" is the better effort, if only because it plays to his musical strengths. It's all furious and rude, sung as if he were nursing a nasty hangover. Recorded under the nom de plume Grandpa Boy, the disc features blistering pleasures such as "Let's Not Belong Together" and "Silent Film Star."

"You ought to be a silent film star, keep that pretty little trap shut," he croons on the latter.

"Eyes Like Sparks" sputters its rhythms out until its sobering lyrics crystallize. "Knock it Right Out," though, sounds too much like a Garage Band 101 homework assignment.

On "Stereo," Mr. Westerberg finds his inner Dylan. The reflective odes to love, loss and change often find his voice channeled through his nasal cavaties for maximum angst.

The new father starts with the poignant "Baby Learns to Crawl," musing on how children absorb lessons in the most curious manner.

"Boring Enormous" shows Mr. Westerberg successfully straddling his past and present identities. Backed chiefly by his acoustic guitar, it's a mournful song with malice lurking under its pristine surface.

His Dylan aspirations seem almost comical on "Let the Bad Times Roll," even if the song itself is a gem.

The Replacements reigned as an alternate rock supergroup despite the band's Jekyll and Hyde live persona. Fans wouldn't know if the band would be sober enough to live up to its vinyl-inspired hype until after the first few notes.

Today, Mr. Westerberg faces the question of whether he will remain a roots rocker or blossom into a balladeer. The latter may alienate his dwindling flock of 'mats faithful, but his last few albums hint it may be where he inevitably will head. C.T.


BONNIE RAITT

Silver Linings

(Capital Records)

Bonnie Raitt returns to the music scene with her first album in four years and the 16th in her long career.

"Silver Linings" contains Miss Raitt's signature sound of soulful blues and rock. Her voice has gotten better through the years, and its brassiness makes each song come alive even more.

The title track, "Silver Linings," is a cover of the David Gray song. The track "Time of Our Lives" talks about jumping in your car, forgetting your troubles and enjoying your life. "Gnawin' On It" is raunchy fun. It tells the story of a happily married older couple enjoying an afternoon rendezvous.

"Hear Me Lord," by Zimbabwean Oliver Mtukudzi, will appeal to the listener with its African beats.

Although most of the album is up-tempo, Miss Raitt slows it down for two wrenching love songs, "Wherever You May Be" and "Wounded Heart."

Miss Raitt, who is known for her slide guitar skills, recorded this album with her touring band James "Hutch" Hutchinson, Ricky Fataar, George Marinelli and Jon Cleary rather than using session musicians. This gives the album a precision sound and a playful feel.

Although this CD does not break any new musical ground, it offers a satisfying exuberance.

Amy Baskerville


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