Saturday, May 26, 2007

sky blue sky

A few months after the breakup of the great band Uncle Tupelo in 1994, Wilco, made up of several former members of Uncle Tupelo, released their first song on the country compilation Red, Hot + Country. The song was "The T.B. Is Whipping Me," a great revival of a Jimmie Rodgers-style barroom romp. If this is what the rest of their stuff is going to be like, I thought at the time, this could be the start of a great post-Uncle Tupelo career.

I was half right. Wilco has turned out to be one of the great bands of the 1990s and 2000s, but they haven't recorded another song like "The T.B. Is Whipping Me." Their sound has gotten more experimental with each subsequent release, and they've tended toward something more like a Brit Pop sound than the alt-country stylings of Uncle Tupelo. Their last studio album, A Ghost Is Born (2004), was their most experimental set yet, and while I didn't love it, I did think the songs translated well on their subsequent live release, Kicking Television: Live in Chicago (2005).

Wilco's new album, Sky Blue Sky, while not a wholesale return to their 1994 sound, is probably their most straightforward release since their debut album, A.M. (1995), although it's not so self-parodying. Jeff Tweedy's vocal delivery still treads the line between adolescent and world-weary, and his songwriting is as strong as ever. I doubt that the critics will love Sky Blue Sky as much as their other recent work, but I'd rank it among their best. Sometimes it's okay to scale back one's ambition and simply do what one does best. That's what Jeff Tweedy and company have done this time, with this collection of straight-ahead country rock, judiciously spiced with Wilco's signature experimentation. The operative word here is restraint.

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