3/5 Wilco The sorta-eponymous seventh from the reigning Chicago rock champs is a warm, hypoallergenic bath of an album. Mellow-but-upbeat ballads and breezy midtempo rockers fill out a brief, wheel-spinning record that rehashes the past couple of releases with diminishing returns.
Among the pleasant soft rock only four tracks stand out. Unfortunately, two of them – the cheeky cheer-up ‘Wilco (The Song)’ and the saloon-piano stomper ‘You Never Know’ – mimic ’70s classics ‘Werewolves Of London’ and ‘My Sweet Lord’. The other highlights evoke the pretty experimentalism of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Not coincidentally, Jeff Tweedy’s poetry shines brightest on these as well. ‘I’m in a bull-black Chevy Nova,’ the frontman mutters with paranoia as the band evokes Steely Dan as Berlin beatniks on ‘Bull Black Nova.’
But the beautiful ‘Deeper Down’ is the real gem. ‘By the end of the bout/He was punched out/His capsized muscles shouting/Deeper down,’ sighs Tweedy with the hard-boiled poeticism of Raymond Chandler reading over a chamber ensemble. Plucks and strums tick and interlock in complicated, golden clockwork.Everything else struggles to capture the same level of detail. The conservative dad-pop framework confines Cline’s guitar in a pressure cooker. In each song, when the LA axman finally gets the chance to lay down lines, his notes trill with pent-up restlessness. The solos in ‘One Wing’ and ‘Sonny Feeling’ dart and hum like pesky mosquitoes. Can’t blame them, looking for any sign of flesh or swamp. We were hoping for brilliance. After the similarly disappointing Sky Blue Sky, Wilco seem happy to stick with merely pleasant. Brent DiCrecenzo Available at www.7digital.com or to order in stores.
4/5 Farm Since reunions are ubiquitous these days, it’s worth clarifying: what exactly should we ask of a band returning from the grave? Farm, Dinosaur Jr.’s second full-length since its original lineup re-formed in ’05, just might be the gold standard. On one hand, the album couldn’t sound less surprising; on the other, it’s hard to imagine it coming off as any more solid and enjoyable. Farm proves that there’s no shame in picking up right where you left off, as long as you do it with conviction.
Dino frontman J Mascis’s many talents have rarely been captured so vividly as they are on Farm’s first two tracks, ‘Pieces’ and ‘I Want You To Know’. Both perfectly sum up the blissfully fuzzed-out style Mascis has been honing for more than two decades. The former song deftly balances razor-sharp melodic contours with freedom-rock catharsis worthy of Neil Young while the latter takes a groovier route to grunge-pop heaven. Here and elsewhere, Mascis’s inimitable twang floats beautifully above the gritty murk.
The guitarist has never shied away from excess, and some selections here (the seven-minute-plus ballad ‘Said The People’, for example) suffer from solipsistic bloat. But a few compelling curveballs – including the surprisingly metallic ‘I Don’t Wanna Go There’ and two strong tunes by formerly estranged bassist Lou Barlow – balance out a killer set that other would-be comebackers would do well to study. Hank Shteamer Available at www.7digital.com or to order in stores.
3/5 Seya Oumou Sangaré is a hell of a woman. One of six kids raised in poverty in Mali, Sangaré is now a superstar in Africa, known as the ‘Songbird of wassoulou’ (wassoulou being a West African musical genre) and famed as a singer, businesswoman and human-rights campaigner. Her songs blare out across Bamako, Mali, her name adorns packets of rice, and she even has a car named after her, the Oum Sang. (For further evidence of her popularity, watch her being cheerfully mobbed as she walks through the streets of Bamako in the documentary Throw Down Your Heart.)
Listening to Sangaré’s fifth album, Seya, it’s easy to understand why she’s become so big. There’s her voice, for one thing: strong and lithe, but also cool like silk. And, similar to her fellow Malian artists Amadou Et Mariam and Rokia Traoré, Sangaré combines a deep sense of rootedness with breezy experimentalism and a yen for pop. For evidence, just check ‘Senkele Te Sira,’ in which twinkling plucks on traditional instruments dance alongside a fuzzy electric-guitar lick.
But what really shines is the sheer vitality that runs through Sangaré’s music; listening to the lovely, harmony-strafed ‘Senkele Te Sira’ feels like trying to breathe while on a roller coaster. ‘I say what I want and what I think because I am a free woman,’ Sangaré said in a recent interview, and if you want to hear that sentiment expressed musically, Seya is your starting point. The title’s translation? ‘Joy’. Sophie Harris Available at www.amazon.com.
4/5 Beacons Of Ancestorship At its best, Tortoise is a refreshingly sophisticated pop group that just happens to lack a vocalist. Consider ‘Prepare Your Coffin’, the lead single from the band’s sixth full-length CD: It’s a blazing three-and-a-half minute mini epic that recalls the early-’70s heyday of adventurous, fusion-infused rock. A full album of tracks this action-packed and ambitious would position Tortoise as the modern answer to Steely Dan or even Chicago.
But where ‘Prepare Your Coffin’ comes off as a beautifully fleshed-out song, many of the other tracks on Beacons Of Ancestorship merely register as expertly produced sonic sketches. Electronica-leaning pieces like ‘Northern Something’ and ‘Monument Six One Thousand’ are pleasant but unengaging, like half-baked remixes of songs you’ve never actually heard. Other pieces, such as the smoky ‘The Fall Of Seven Diamonds Plus One’ – featuring Jeff Parker’s heavily twanged guitar and percussion that sounds like rattling chains – flirt frustratingly with soundtrack schmaltz.
The album’s weak points aren’t likely to surprise long-time listeners, who have been reckoning with similarly mixed bags since 1998’s TNT. The biggest revelation of Beacons is the punky rawness evident on ‘Yinxianghechengqi’, which boasts a driving, distorted rhythm track that might have been lifted from Shellac. Assuming the band can find a way to fuse that grittiness with the prog-pop bravado of ‘Prepare Your Coffin’, its next effort just may outpace the dreaded post-rock tag once and for all. Hank Shteamer Available at www.amazon.com.