1) Wilco, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” (Nonesuch)
The cover features photos of Chicago skyscrapers, and the first four words, “I am an American,” are the same as those of Saul Bellow’s 1953 “The Adventures of Augie March”: “Chicago born,” Bellow said after a comma; “aquarium drinker,” Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy says without one. But Augie March knew how to walk against the wind on the streets, to go right past you with such force you turned around and watched his back, wondering who he was — while Tweedy’s singing, never strong, here recedes into a dithering miasma apparently meant to signify thinking it all over, plus sound effects apparently meant to signify the modern world. In other words, it isn’t against the law to redo “Revolver,” but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Especially if you’re an American.
2) Sheryl Crow, “Soak Up the Sun” (A&M)
Money, fame, cheesecake photos, and on this song she still sounds like someone making her first record without the slightest interest in whether it will go anywhere at all.
3) Warren Zevon, “My Ride’s Here” (Artemis)
And the black stretch takes off like a shot, with a determination that seems to want nothing more from life than proof it can only get worse. “Do everything I tell you,” says the singer in “Sacrificial Lambs,” gritting his teeth inside his hipster smile. “Then we’ll talk.” The driver rounds a corner and picks up Carl Hiaasen, Mitch Albom and Hunter Thompson. The bestsellers and the guy whose songs don’t sell scribble lyrics, grinning over all the great lines. The writers are wondering how cool this is; the singer is wondering how big their names should be on the front of the CD. Sparks fly. It’s the back end of the limo, dragging the pavement.
4) Grateful Dead, “Postcards of the Hanging: Grateful Dead Perform the Songs of Bob Dylan” (Grateful Dead/Arista, 1973-90)
“Totally supplants ‘Peter Yarrow Sings Rage Against the Machine,’” writes Howard Hampton.
5) Party of Helicopters, “Space … And How Sweet It Was” (Troubleman Unlimited)
From Kent, Ohio, and for anyone who loved Bush — the band, not one or the other occupant of the White House. With more ferocity, more art, less time, the same thrill.
6) Blasters, “Testament: The Complete Slash Recordings (1981-1985)” (Rhino)
The Los Angeles rockabilly combo could nail it; with “No Other Girl” and “American Music,” the songs leaping with syllables drawn out over their own rhythms, words snapping back on themselves like rubber bands, they nailed it shut. But except for a cover of John Mellencamp’s “Colored Lights,” there’s nothing here anyone needs that wasn’t on “The Blasters Collection,” and at least an hour’s worth of stuff nobody needs.
7) “Enronomania!” (American Folk Art Museum, New York, opening April 1, 2009)
Back in 2002, James L. Swenson and Daniel R. Weinberg began their extensively illustrated “Lincoln’s Assassins: Their Trial and Execution” (Arena) with Lew Wallace’s striking “Conspirators’ Tableau” — what they called “a fanciful painting of John Wilkes Booth and his associates on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol as they watch Abraham Lincoln deliver his Second Inaugural Address on March 4, 1865.” (Booth was definitely there; others of the eight convicted co-conspirators may have been.) Wallace got around — as a Union major general he served on the military tribunal that tried the surviving assassins, and after that, as territorial governor of New Mexico, befriended and then ordered the murder of Billy the Kid. But what was it that led him to picture the conspirators leaning or standing on huge blocks of granite, one of them carved into an exact precursor of that tilted E true fans still remember as the Enron logo?
8) “American Magus: Harry Smith — A Modern Alchemist,” directed by Paola Igliori (Inanout Digital Productions), at the IV Buenos Aires International Independent Film Festival (April 18-28)
Southern Tip writes: “If Argentina is a country that loses everything (the peso loses more than half its value, the National Library loses a big part of its collection in the course of a move, films are barely preserved and personal collections have to be thrown out when it’s politically dangerous to hold on to them), then seeing a movie about Harry Smith, the weirdest collector who ever lived, may make no sense at all. But the wildness of Smith’s curiosities, from ancient phonograph records to paper airplanes to string sculptures to painted eggs, might be a shot in the heart to someone living out their own no-future — because suddenly everything is possible and anything might matter. It’s hard to assimilate a man whose endless, diverse collections teetered in piles above his bed but who could also distill hundreds of years of dread into a headline for someone’s worst nightmare, as he did in the handbook for his 1951 ‘Anthology of American Folk Music, Volume One: Ballads’ (though most Argentines would have no problem getting the everyday devastation of ‘Young Agriculturist Neglects Seed — Loses Both Crop and Fiancie’). Igliori, editor of a book that carries the same title as her film, doesn’t fit Smith into the mold of a genius or an eccentric, an anthropologist or a student or a savior, though the people she interviews call Smith all of these things. Her movie is less a balanced portrait of a peculiar person who did exceptional things than something you can imagine seeing at Coney Island’s freak show, right after the Snake Lady and before the Unbelievably Strong Tattoed Twins swallow their swords.”
9) Michael Rutschky, on “Americanization? Popular Culture Abroad,” at the conference Democracy and Popular Culture (John M. Olin Center for Inquiry Into the Theory and Practice of Democracy, University of Chicago, April 20)
“I remember him saying we should never listen to noise,” Rutschky, author of “Berlin: Die Stadt als Roman” (The City as Novel), said of studying with Theodor Adorno in the 1960s. “The noise of Heidegger or the noise of the Beatles, it was the same.”
10) Pizzeria Uno, Wabash and Ohio, Chicago (April 20)
On a cold, blustery night, a little speaker on the outside of the building was playing “Hound Dog.” The original, sung by Willie Mae Thornton, from Los Angeles in 1953. It sounded about as old as the weather, and also like an accident of place and time — then and there, here and now.