It’s hard not to hear Wilco’s second album as Jeff Tweedy’s reaction to the critical and (relative) commercial success of Trace, the 1995 debut of his former Uncle Tupelo partner Jay Farrar’s Son Volt. In contrast to Wilco’s relatively lighthearted A.M., Trace presented Farrar at his most willfully dourwhen he wasn’t busy being “poetic,” that is. “Searchin’ for a truer sound,” Farrar found “an all-night station/Somewhere in Louisiana/Sounds like 1963, but for now, it sounds like heaven,” while infuriatingly abandoning the personal/political content that helped make Tupelo’s March 16-20, 1992, and Anodyne something like belated American answers to the Mekons’ ’80s classics.
Farrar opted instead for easy clichés (drowning, wrong turns on dark highways) that too many critics read as signs of sorrowful depth rather than Farrar’s refusal to provide details other than ones that might have been located in a beer commercial or VH-1 road trip. Highways, county lines, billboards, all mine! “May the wind take your troubles away,” Farrar mewled. What was that song on Anodyne called? Oh yeah, “We’ve Been Had.”
Who wouldn’t flee a movement preciously dubbing itself “No Depression,” even if that was one of your former group’s album titles? Tweedy has lately been making noise about wanting to get away from the nouveau country-rock thing, but that move is hard to hear in Being There’s instrumentation. Tweedy and friends (several of them former Tupelo members) work at putting distance between themselves and Son Volt, but the labor is sometimes a little too obvious. When Wilco does take a decisive step away from its rustic side, it’s usually to indulge in vague funk wanderings on the order of the last couple of Black Crowes albums, or to pay sloppy homage to ’60s Top 40 favorites. The two-CD (total time: around 76 minutes, at a single-disc price) format allows Tweedy room for two versions of his album’s first single. “Outtasite (Outta Mind)” is a likable Stones-style pounder, while “Outta Mind (Outta Sight)” attempts a Beach Boys Today!-style take.
But despite distorted vocal tracks, sloppy rhythm performances, excursions into semiformlessness and six-minute-plus cuts, Being There is still the work of an outfit that doesn’t mind relying on its acoustic guitars and banjos when it needs to. Soundwise, “Forget the Flowers,” “Red-Eyed and Blue,” and “Someone Else’s Song” all would have fit in on the excellent A.M., while also lowering its quality index a good bit. Without the aid of A.M. co-producer Brian Paulson, Wilco ran so rampant in the studio this set ends up lacking shapeand generally not in a good way. Nothing here equals the sharply observed tragicomedy of the debut’s “Passenger Side,” the plaint of a man with a suspended driver’s license; the now-married (to Lounge Ax co-owner Susan Miller) Tweedy is far past the romantic breakup that informed that record.
What’s worrisome is the possibility that he’s got little left to sing about. Much of this music, whether the Peter Laughner-quoting feedback storm of “Misunderstood” or the sweet “Say You Miss Me,” smacks of exercise. And couldn’t someone do something about the series of lines in “Kingpin” that starts with “I caught the flu and away I flew” before bottoming out with “Dimetapp and Spinal Tap/City maps and handclaps”? Being There certainly isn’t a disaster, but for now, Tweedy’s aim is off.
There are madly differing opinions among Go-Betweens fans about the relative quality of the solo albums that followed the Australian group’s breakup at the beginning of the ’90s. To my ears, at least oneRobert Forster’s darkening Danger in the Pastis a work equaling the best of a band that made some of the finest records of the past decade. Since then, Forster and former bandmate Grant McLennan have issued scads of solo albums and even played together now and again. Forster is back with his first album of new songs in three years, having filled the gap with I Had a New York Girlfriend, a covers collection that re-examined Keith Richards, country crooner Bill Anderson, the Monkees, and Heart, among others.
Unlike the Mick (Bad Seeds) Harvey-produced Danger, many of whose bleak scenarios resembled short fiction, Warm Nights is as affable as its titlea bit moodier than one of your lesser Lloyd Cole albums, maybe. Edwyn Collins, hot from a worldwide hit, is at the board this time; unfortunately, he brings little of the weirdness he’s capable of. Too bad, because despite the remake of a troubling Go-Betweens B-side, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Friend,” Forster just sounds too content. Amusing arrangement touches carry a few cuts: “Fortress,” which lists like Bryan Ferry taking his chances in front of a bunch of tipsy polka players, and “Jug of Wine,” which floats on a skating-rink organ.
Several numbers drift by with neither Forster nor Collins apparently willing to provide any tension. The opener, “I Can Do,” is a veritable toe-tapper, something the old outfit never delivered even at its most polished: It’s a cruise-ship band suffocating the Creedence riffs Forster and Collins love. The title track, which follows, moves on the same beat but is toughened slightly by its images of biting bugs and “dopers tripping on their weed.” That’s one of two pot references on the album, which might explain the languidness of much of this music; the other comes in “Snake Skin Lady,” a portentous song that leads nowhere especially scary.
The last few songs tease Warm Nights into real life. Aside from “Rock ‘n’ Roll Friend,” the most dramatic thing here largely dispenses with the rest of the band. “On a Street Corner” is a long meditation for voice, guitar, and cello in the Danger vein. Forster recalls the clothes he wore when he spotted his lover for the first time before wondering “what…made you so narrow, so hard all the time.” There was nothing half this bitter on Richard Thompson’s last couple of releases. It’s something Forster could do more often. A blast of cold air, perhaps, could do the trick.CP