Like Elliott Smith’s From a Basement on the Hill, Jay Bennett’s final album Kicking at the Perfumed Air is unfinished. Yet it’s still relatively polished, and a cruel reminder of what we lost when Bennett died in May of 2009. One of this era’s greatest talents in any style of music, the ex-Wilco multi-instrumentalist could play pretty much any instrument and could write pretty much anything as well. And his songwriting was only getting stronger. We picked his previous, solo acoustic album Whatever Happened, I Apologize – issued a couple of months before his death by insurgent Chicago netlabel rockproper – as one of that year’s best. And over two years later, our review of that album remains one of the ten most popular articles in the history of this website. Despite a chronic back condition that required him to take the pain medication that ultimately killed him, this album is the reverse image of the previous one: upbeat, fun and often very funny, it puts to rest any claim that Bennett might have been a suicide.
There are a couple of stark acoustic tracks, just guitar and voice, that revert to the vibe of the previous album. When Heaven Held the World, a sad country ballad, ends on an unexpectedly hopeful note, while Footprints somewhat grimly recalls an affair with someone who “only left footprints on my heart…you were just her to take pictures.” There are also a couple of first-rate collaborations with Bennett’s longtime pal Edward Burch: Second-Last Call, a raucous country blues that paints a sarcastic, surreal barroom scene, and Twice a Year, a lament which despite its roughness has layers of piano and acoustic guitar that are absolutely exquisite. The title track of sorts is a cover of the Boomtown Rats’ classic Diamond Smiles, done as oldtime country with layers of acoustic guitars, piano bass and mandolin that only enhance the song’s brutal sarcasm: in this one the spoiled suicide girl grew up on a plantation. There’s a marvelous rumble after Bennett reminds that “love is for others but me it destroys,” and a LOL funny ending.
The best song here is Mirror Ball, a gorgeously lush, distantly Big Star influenced psychedelic pop ballad. It’s as good as anything Alex Chilton ever wrote, a bartender’s remembrance of a star he never knew. Hotel Song is another gorgeous one, a big towering ballad with watery Leslie-speaker guitar in the background, Bennett playing agile Stax/Volt leads and finally a pretty unhinged, icepick solo over Jason Sipe’s blistering, sustained power chords. There’s also a funky, Afrobeat-flavored number, a Dylanesque chamber-pop ballad, the bitter, rustic waltz Chamber Physics and a tribute to beer funnier than anyone else’s since Tom T. Hall did I Like Beer in 1975.
So why didn’t we review this when it came out over a year ago? At this point, it’s impossible to remember. Yes, we were remiss: this is our atonement. Download it for free from rockproper and be grateful they put this out.
Dave Wechsler is the founder and accordionist of the marvelously smart, lush Brooklyn “historical orchestrette” Pinataland. As The Tyranny of Dave (a tongue-in-cheek comment by poet Genya Turovskaya that he ended up adopting for his solo projects), he released a marvelously brooding travelogue of an album, Vacations, in 2007. His new one The Decline of America, Part One: The Bush Years is a personal rather than a political statement, although the sardonic, occasionally bitter tone of these songs echoes that era’s sadness. Much of this is pretty morose, with a sort of Elliott Smith quality, characteristically melodic chamberpop with a few surprises that come as an unexpected and very welcome jolt of adrenaline. Here Wechsler is joined by his Chicago band - bassist Aaron Zemelko, Cameroonian guitarist Didi Afana, and drummer Ben Gray – along with cameos from cellist Serena Jost, chanteuses Robin Aigner and Anna Soltys and guitarist Ross Bonadonna. What’s best is that Wechsler is offering it as a free download at his bandcamp site.
Months after he wrote the pensive, dynamically shifting 6/8 chamber pop ballad America’s Oldest Home, which opens the album, Wechsler decided it was about 9/11: you decide whether or not he was one of those who knew what was coming before it happened. The second track, Greatest Generation has a blithe, Summerteeth-era Wilco swing – it’s a subtle examination of the personal as political in the wake of 9/11, with a lively choir featuring Codapendency’s Tara Shenoy and Athanasia Sawicz along with Carla Budesinsky, Brittany Petersen and Kate Nylander (ex-Wildcats Marching Band), and trumpeter Megan Beugger.
The 6/8 ballad Abraham Man slowly makes its way to a swirling, off-center cauldron of strings and keyboards; the bouncy Too Late offers a tongue-in-cheek yet resonant look at the consequences of the current depression. The similarly upbeat Chicago River Song, sort of an uncredited Pinataland number, features characteristically incisive, nebulously bluesy lead guitar work from Afana plus vivid violin by Claudia Chopek. Every Damn Light, a Hurricane Katrina narrative, ups the ante with more bluesy, echoey guitar and the ex-Wildcats horn section. The real shocker, and the best number here is When All the Stores are Closed, a swinging early 70s psychedelic blues-rock number unlike anything Wechsler’s ever done before, quite a contrast with the next cut, the ornate chamber pop of Fire Drill, which evokes the elegaic understatement of REM’s Find the River.
The fast, blippy keyboard pop of Raise a Glass camouflages its bitter, sardonic edge. Remember the Maine, an Iraq war parable, sways with minor-key bite and some gorgeously plaintive harmonies from Aigner: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Pierre de Gaillande catalog. The album winds up with the ghostly, organ-fueled Call of the Waters and the similarly regret-tinged oldtimey-flavored Americana ballad Wake Up in Brooklyn. Fans of lyrical, smartly melodic rock from Elvis Costello to the aforementioned Elliott Smith will find plenty to enjoy here: if this is any indication, Tyranny of Dave’s planned volume two is something to look forward to.
What a harrowing way to start the new year. This cd hits you with a gale force, bitter, brutal and direct. Even if you try to get out of the way, Jay Bennett – the talented multi-instrumentalist who for all intents and purposes was Wilco until he left the band and Jeff Tweedy decided to become Brian Wilson – will still knock the wind out of you. Most of this cd – Bennett’s fourth solo album – is just voice and acoustic guitar, occasionally embellished with organ and bass that are so good that you’re left wanting more. While the songs on this album scream out for a full band to flesh them out, even if this is as far as they ever get, that’s fine: they still pack a wallop. Stylistically, Bennett evokes Matt Keating or Richard Buckner in particularly energetic mode: this is smart, terse, gorgeously melodic Americana rock with equally smart, tersely unwinding lyrics. It’s a concept album about a relationship gone awry, spectacularly: this one was doomed right from the start, and if Bennett is to be taken at face value, it’s something of a miracle he got out alive.
The cd starts with a road song, just a bit of ominous foreshadowing in the same vein as the Wilco classic Far, Far Away (from the Being There cd), followed by the matter-of-fact, dismissive I Don’t Have the Time. Bennett knows there’s drama coming down the line and he wants no part of it. “I don’t have the good looks, but I know yours won’t last,” he caustically tells the woman. With the next cut, I’ll Decorate My Love, the genie’s out of the bottle, Pandora’s out of the box and all hell breaks loose, setting the tone for the rest of the cd:
There will be no profit in protection
Even when you’re walking miles in the rain
I will curse the day I met you
And you will curse the day I lost control
And there will be no reward for your actions
Even when you’re trying to save your lover’s soul…
You were down before me
And the issues are clouded and hang in the air
The best part of the story is the part that you missed…
The best part of the record is the part where it skips
And she lost the lyrics and the jacket is ripped…
Cos it’s ageless and timeless but beauty must fade
And you looked so much better when the picture was made
The pace picks up and emotions reach a fever pitch on How Dull They Make the Razor: Bennett wants to wait this one out, but he ends up getting dragged in anyway:
It don’t matter how dull they make the razor
You won’t feel it when you’re dead
On the next track, Without the Benefit of Sight, Bennett likens himself to a block of ice on a Chicago rooftop in early spring, loosened just enough to become deadly. Exasperation and despair take over center stage:
If you want to weigh me down there’s just one layer left
I’ve been repainted so many times it’s anybody’s guess
And that’s pretty much where it’s left. Bennett muses on how Hank Williams might have written this story, then throws up his hands and lets that work as a smokescreen: he’s through with trying to cut through the smoldering underbrush, and the songs follow suit. “I lost my best friend last night, I’m working on number two/Won’t you give me a chance cause your chances are through,” he warns on the stark, mandolin-spiced ballad Talk and Talk and Talk. The cd ends with a lament for the world as a whole – the relationship seems to be a microcosm of something far worse – and then with the understatement of Little Blue Pills, “that don’t make you ill – someday they will.”
Intensely personal yet not the least bit self-absorbed, this is the best thing Bennett’s ever done. And the best thing about it is that the cd is absolutely free: Bennett is giving it away as a free download at rockproper.com, click here and then hang on, this is not exactly easy listening.
Tonight was a triumph for Tandy. It always feels good to see a band take it to the next level. These guys have come a long ways since their days as densely wordy mid-period Wilco soundalikes in the late 90s. Despite having suddenly lost their (and everybody else’s) lead guitarist Drew Glackin at a young age last month, they’ve regrouped and played an absolutely killer set, one gorgeous song after another. Tandy’s most recent material is their best: slow-to-midtempo, contemplative, lyrically-driven, jangly and richly melodic Americana rock with tinges of southwestern gothic at times. Frontman Mike Ferrio began the set on mandolin and harmonica before switching to acoustic guitar. The new guy they had sitting in on Telecaster provided vividly melodic, tastefully terse fills, Skip Ward played a rare gig on electric bass, and drummer Bruce Martin added some very pretty accordion textures while keeping time on the kick on one song.
Ferrio is an excellent lyricist, writing memorable, understated, image-filled narratives of blue-collar life, his vocals casual and laid-back. One of the early songs, seemingly an antiwar number, morphed into a long, crescendoing vamp on the chorus of the Emerson, Lake and Palmer pop hit Lucky Man. Later they did a couple of long, slow, hypnotically summery numbers that wouldn’t have been out of place on a Giant Sand album. The set was somewhat front-loaded – it seemed that they saved the older material for last for the sake of their fans. The Tandy website notes triumphantly that their latest cd is sold out: unsurprising for a band this good. They’re huge in Europe. If Americana or just plain thoughtful, smart, guitar-based rock is your thing, you owe it to yourself to discover Tandy.
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