Three Reviews of New Albums: Wilco, Spoon, White Stripes
Wilco, Sky Blue Sky
Wilco's 2007 album Sky Blue Sky combines a more heartfelt and earnest songcraft from Jeff Tweedy with a band that is better than the best jam bands. Guitarist Nels Cline, who usually earns his keep playing jazz, is an absolute wizard whose notes reverberate off of the sentiment of Tweedy's songs powerfully.
Tweedy himself has turned his melodies of pop music ecstasy into cogent investigations of human relationships. Before, in a song like "Reservations" from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the listener would feel a bit depressed. In Sky Blue Sky, that same emotional frailty rests alongside the promise of hope and family.
Tweedy's playful side also comes out, in the hilarious "Hate It Here," which reminds me of Wilco's early, fun music. As a songwriter, Tweedy's strength may be the Janus-face of the speaker of the songs he has created. Different songs all represent differing sides of what it means to be an American adult male in this day in age: being a father, being distant from family, being emotionally spotty, being playful, dealing with war, experiencing domestic life, and of course, the evanescent nature of love.
There's a lot more hope in this album than previously for Wilco, and the band has truly gelled. I love this album, and its influences I also love: "What Light" might be called a sequel to Bob Dylan's "Forever Young," "Hate It Here" is the song John Lennon never got to write (and the "Beatles" guitar sound in that song is so refreshing), and "Impossible Germany" shows that geography can be used as a signifier to express the complex emotions of love.
Wilco's Sky Blue Sky: what a band, what strong songs.
Spoon, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
It's sometimes said that Spoon is one of the few bands that one could say is "saving rock and roll," and I agree, but these three albums here reviewed show that rock is not dying.
My favorite thing about this album is that it takes the best of "Spoon-ness" and implants it into each song and each minute sound in the album -- down to the fraction of a second. The purposeful transparency of the studio editing process is one of those Spoon-nesses. Another is the hollering-in-the-street feel of the songs. Each song has the outward energy of meeting interesting new people, and telling stories in bars.
I'd say Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is an attempt at what I'd call "audio collage." One thing that's really difficult is to be both fun and serious, and Spoon does this. These songs are just absolute fun:
3. You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb
4. Don't You Evah
5. Rhythm and Soul
6. Eddie's Ragga
8. My Little Japanese Cigarette Case
9. Finer Feelings
And of course, that's the bulk of the album. The songs represent what it's like to grow older, yet yearn for new experiences, always trying to be cool but knowing you're a dork, and making something lasting that's true.
This album is so "Spoon." My favorite is the "You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb" 1960s Motor City sound and the "Finer Feelings" narrative of what it's like to leave home (for Spoon, Austin, Texas) and find one's identity changed while memories stay the same.
This album is about hitting the pavement -- "Black Like Me" says "My boots are on the mend / and they ain't walking home / Street tar in summer will do a job on your soul" -- and trying to find something unidentifiable, which, for this band, is a comfort.
White Stripes, Icky Thump
I thought Jack White had reached his artistic height and forgotten something. The last White Stripes album, Get Behind Me Satan, just didn't interest me. The songwriting wasn't there. Then Jack's side project The Raconteurs didn't match his skills or his energy.
Icky Thump sees Jack and Meg return to form, in an album most closely like 2000's De Stijl. Jack's narrative creativity returns, when in "A Martyr For My Love For You" an adult man must tell the teenage girl he loves they cannot have contact. This song could be said to be a sequel to "Truth Doesn't Make a Noise" from De Stijl, since the structure of the songs as well as the narratives are so close. But it's not redundancy if one's copying something that works.
Then Jack White comes up with a musical theme or "conceit" that just should not work, like two songs based on bagpipes, or a song with flamenco horns. And of course, the songs totally work, on the same album where garage rock, bluesy power riffs, and banging drums exist alongside.
More than a return to form, this album feels like the instantiation of the tradition of rock music. Wow. The songs are just excellent -- White talks about the immigration debate in a topical-yet-not way in "Icky Thump" and the hilarious "Effect and Cause" recalls the Southern-tinged acoustic sound in "Your Southern Can Is Mine" from De Stijl.
The phrase "in the pocket" refers to bands that are just together, and in Icky Thump they are in the pocket. Jack and Meg White have returned to the format and the songs that suit them best, and place them in the company of rock music's historical greats.
I especially love Meg's backing vocals. Icky Thump returns us to the sponge that is Jack White -- the sponge that takes everything in and then has something smart to say.
Taken as a whole, these three albums have restored my faith in rock music, and have reminded me of why I scour the internet for good tunes.
No profanes - sacred