Let’s start with Yo La Tengo, the Hoboken three piece noise pop outfit. I love their recorded work, and I discovered why: I can pick which pieces to listen too. When they manage to balance the noise with the pop, doing both, they are incredible. But the pop just by itself is just pop, no bite or edge. It’s — nice. And the more experimental noise pieces lapse into self indulgence. Sonic Youth have made a career of occupying the noisy side of the street and in recent years have developed a vocabulary — even a language — of noise through which they talk to each other and us. Ira Kaplan just wailed when he went off on noise excursions, supported –but not really in conversation with — YLT’s great rhythm section. But he wasn’t really talking. And when the pop happened it was good and fun, but it didn’t really engage with their experimental side. The two aspects met and passed each other by without much in the way of engagement. I feel bad saying it cuz I really like the band.
Wilco tries the same move but coming from a different place. Starting out as alt country pioneers in the late nineties, they developed an edgier sound as they grew. At a crucial juncture, after firing the late and talented Jay Bennett, they could have retreated and consolidated, like the Replacements did after having to fire Bob Stinson and that would have probably finished Wilco same as it did the ‘Mats. Instead they took on experimental guitarist Nels Cline and asked him to play as a band member, not just a lead guitar dropping in every four or five minutes from space. This unlikely match produced the album — or more particularly, the song — that hooked me on Wilco. Along the way I discovered Jeff Tweedy’s fairly poetic songwriting, in the reverse order to what I suppose is the usual route of discovery.
The album, A Ghost is Born, is uneven, largely marred by a pointless, formless fourteen minute excursion into hum and static. But on there lay a gem of a song, “Handshake Drugs,” with its wonderfull pre-recovery lyrics like “if I ever was myself I wasn’t that night.” But the hook for me was the way it started out as a catchy but standard piano, bass, and drums song only to be gradually, almost imperceptibly, invaded by Cline’s insect buzz guitars taking over and consuming the song, transforming it into something wild and altogether other by the end without the listener ever quite knowing how it happened.
“Handshake Drugs” is a version in miniature of what my favorite radio show, Boston’s “Eric in the Evening” does with jazz. We would often times flip through the stations in Boston before dinner and land on some cosmopolitan sounding bebop to eat to only to land somehow invariably in Ornette Coleman/Sun Ra territory before dessert, moving there so sneakily as to never notice until it was too late to ever go back. Unfortunately, the subtle takeover was lost live as Cline dive bombed with squall right at the start of the second verse.
I have to admit I still liked some of the music, especially the guitars, both Tweedy’s and Cline’s, not to mention the occasional third one from one of the keyboard players. And the band is at the top of its game. And Tweedy writes compellingly. But still…