- The Washington Times - Monday, March 3, 2003

Wilco, an alternative rock band from Chicago, occupies that rarefied zone of critical acclaim that most bands only dream of.
Getting snubbed by the Grammys this year for its fourth album, the heralded "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," only seemed to add another layer to the band's patina of bona fides.
But it will be interesting to see if Jeff Tweedy, the band's chief creative force, can continue Wilco's winning streak without his experimental wingman, Jay Bennett, whom Mr. Tweedy fired during the "Yankee" project.
The next Wilco release, currently in the works, will be the first Bennett-less album since the band's unremarkable 1994 debut, "A.M." Wilco's sophomore effort, 1996's "Being There," saw a huge boost in creative energy and inventiveness that most credit to Mr. Bennett, a multi-instrumentalist and talented recording engineer.
If two recent Wilco offshoot projects are any indication of the state of Mr. Tweedy's muse, we have cause for concern, if not outright worry.
First, "Loose Fur," an EP released in January.
A collaboration between Mr. Tweedy, Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche and Jim O'Rourke, the engineering wizard who mixed "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," "Loose Fur" takes the atmospherics of the latter album and turns them into a circus of fizzing, warbling, burbling atonality.
Whereas on "Yankee" Mr. O'Rourke employed subtle touches of electronica as a counterpoint to Mr. Tweedy's clean acoustic ditties, on "Loose Fur" the electronic buzzing and gooeyness are front and center.
There are only six songs on "Loose Fur," and most of them are way too long. An instrumental called "Liquidation Totale" is 5 minutes of digital gobbledygook.
The album's lyrical content isn't much more inspiring, but there are some notable tropes. A sneakily sinister line from Mr. Tweedy: "Springtime comes / and the leaves are back / on the trees again / the snipers are harder to see."
Conversely, there's "Elegant Transaction," a song composed mostly by Mr. O'Rourke who shouldn't approach microphones with the intent to sing. A typically pseudo-profound line: "A connection all the same / Like urine loves cold slate."
Mr. Tweedy's songs are far preferable, especially "Chinese Apple," which features a clever stream-of-consciousness lyric and a Nick Drake-esque guitar lick that twists itself around a breathy flow of background noises.
Still, after more than seven minutes, it starts to wear out its welcome.
The second Wilco side project, the humorously named "Down With Wilco," is more accessible than "Loose Fur" but suffers from the same sin of overindulgence.
Released last week, "Down With Wilco" is, by all rights, the property of Scott McCaughey and his band, the Minus 5. Thus, the fault isn't really Mr. Tweedy's.
Mr. McCaughey, formerly of the alt-pop band Young Fresh Fellows, recruited not only members of Wilco including Mr. Tweedy, Mr. Kotche, bassist John Stirratt and keyboardist Leroy Bach to play on this album, but R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck as well.
A quick glance at "Down's" slip cover betrays the pretense of the whole 13-track enterprise. I'm not sure if, by pointing this out, the joke will be on me, but it's presented as "A Tragedy In Three Halfs" "Formerly Hail Centurion," "Pantragruelian Offenses & Encounters" and "Scenes From a Boxcar."
Whatever.
Thankfully, the songs inside don't sound as stuffy, but they're equally problematic.
"Down" opens with a clanging batter of dissonance that sounds like an orchestra tuning up. Then it settles into the agreeable pop of "The Days of Wine And Booze."
A McCartney-esque piano tune, it's an amusing little paean to alcoholism: "I hope and pray the night before, we were out of our heads / Cause I never want to lose the days of wine and booze."
Things proceed swimmingly along with "Retrieval of You" and "That's Not The Way It's Done," both well-crafted songs with grabby hooks and further enlivened by Mr. McCaughey's ironic sensibility:
"I saw you crying in the Quaker choir / They don't swing so low / There's no religion like old-time religion / It's a heavy snow," he sings on the latter.
After this promising start, "Down" starts to wander pointlessly. "The Family Gardener," co-written with Mr. Tweedy, is marred by the same electronic doodling that ruins "Loose Fur."
Ditto "Where Will You Go?" and "View From Below" and several other tracks on "Down With Wilco." Analog synthesizers become a crutch for meandering, middling songwriting.
I fear that on Wilco's forthcoming release Mr. Tweedy will lean on the same crutch. Probably because of Radiohead, serious songwriters like Mr. Tweedy have come to believe, in theory and practice, that modern pop rock must be swabbed with digital flourishes sampling, drum loops and weird, atonal background hum.
While such effects can, if used sparingly, serve a song well, on "Loose Fur" and "Down With Wilco" they become the focus rather than the filigree.
Contrast these with the brilliant Wilco albums "Being There" and "Summerteeth," which, thanks to the skillful Mr. Bennett, pushed boundaries and bent genres without slavishly kneeling at the altar of digital technology.
Mr. Bennett, who has tried, unsuccessfully, to salvage a post-Wilco solo career, comes from the school of jazz legend Miles Davis, who famously said that players should find the "right note" rather than succumbing to the urge of playing as many as possible.
Listen to the brilliant piano hooks Mr. Bennett played on "Summerteeth" to see why such an approach is superior to the Macintosh-aided doctoring of which Wilco is currently enamored.
Upon hearing "Loose Fur" and "Down With Wilco," I'm afraid the great Mr. Tweedy has lost his foil.

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