US - Illinois - Full Moon 78 - 02/16/03
Despite being voted one of the albums of 2002 by most respected music magazines and websites,
there was something about Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot that didn't feel quite right to
me. The fact that music as conventional as Wilco's country-rock suddenly sounded so off-kilter
shouldn't have been a problem - it was the quirkier moments on Being There that kept me
from taking it to the second-hand CD shop for months. Jim O'Rourke mixing the album would surely
have leant it a depth of sound that I appreciate so much in his solo records - sure enough there's
plenty of layered instrumental meat to sink your teeth into. I can only conclude that it was the
uneasy balance between mainstream and experimental sounds that had my ears feeling puzzled rather
than pleased. Tweedy's excellent songwriting didn't feel to me as though it needed tampering with,
and the songs were stretched in so many directions, trying to be so many things, that it tended
to smother the shine.
However, with Loose Fur, O'Rourke, Tweedy and drummer Glenn Kotche donkey around with the sound
rather than try and embellish, and the feel of the songs is more loose, free and improvisational.
Again mixed by O'Rourke, this album sounds like the awkward brother of YHF and
Insignificance, yet never quite coheres
as convincingly as either.
There are only six songs here, spiralling and stumbling over the course of 40 minutes, and the
sequencing of the album accentuates the different writing styles of O'Rourke and Tweedy, with Kotche
brilliantly supporting throughout.
Not surprisingly it is the songs that Tweedy writes the lyrics for that are the most accessible
- and the most beautiful. The closer "Chinese Apple" in particular is stunning: the acoustic
guitar is clear and pretty, becoming entangled with more guitar, cymbals and organ as the song
progresses, before emerging accompanied by a glorious, tumbling drum pattern at the song's finale.
"You Were Wrong" sounds like it could have come from YHF, but has an unadorned, straightforward
and forlorn style that would have suited the songs on that album better.
O'Rourke's "Elegant Transaction" and "So Long" reach towards different ends of his folk-pop
idiom, but neither set the world alight like the rest of his awesome solo work. The former could
have come from the Halfway To A Threeway EP if it wasn't so apologetic in its execution;
the latter is a good song scuffed at the edges by atonal guitar from Tweedy that really begins to
grate. You get the impression that O'Rourke was more concerned with trying to get the sounds to
work together than penning memorable tunes.
So, ultimately, a real disappoint for me, but a surprise in other ways. I expected to find
O'Rourke's input the most inspiring, and yet the songs he sings are probably the weakest here.
Perhaps he's being self-deprecating and left the best tunes for Jeff to sing on; perhaps he was
too busy overseeing the frequently lovely music to bother coming into his own. Either way, what
could have been another favourite is simply quite good.
Copyright © 2003 Tim Clarke