"Sky Blue Sky," Wilco
Even though Wilco have been throwing curveballs at their listeners for the better part of a decade, the new "Sky Blue Sky" might just be the band's most unexpected move yet. Dispensing with the buzzy, blurry electronics of 2002's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" and the opaque artiness of 2004's "A Ghost Is Born," Jeff Tweedy and Co. have fearlessly jumped headfirst into ... sun-dappled folk-rock. Good thing, too, because the album is a sparkling, clean-cut gem.
Full of wide open spaces and lazily drifting clouds of guitar, much of "Sky Blue Sky" has a relaxed, dusky mood. Gone are the jarring electric excursions and driving krautrock rhythms of recent albums, replaced by pillowy clouds of strings and downy keyboards. Flowing, gently melodic songs like "Either Way," "Impossible Germany" and "What Light" make this the first Wilco album you might want to play at a picnic.
The album's approachable and sure-handed sound is perfectly mirrored by Jeff Tweedy's lyrics. At times in the past, Tweedy's words have drawn unfortunate attention to themselves -- who can forget "YHF's" unforgettably elaborate opening lines, "I am an American aquarium drinker/ I assassin down the avenue" -- but here, they're as nakedly open and emotional as the music. The first words sung on "Sky Blue Sky" are "Maybe the sun will shine today"; the last, "You and I will try to make it better." In between is a bunch of similarly rendered reassurance, doubt and praise. Surrounded by less comfortable, organic music, the simplicity of Tweedy's words might come across as trite, but in this context, they attain an almost haiku-like level of elegance.
Not everything on "Sky Blue Sky" is a stroll in the park -- "Shake It Off" is a lumbering keyboard funk number and "Hate It Here" rocks a swaggering soul groove -- but it's easy to imagine how some listeners might hear the sound of regression in the album's relatively subdued music. In fact, "Sky Blue Sky" has already been criticized for its "dad rock" tendencies. But if music that soars and swoops with the grace of a bird in flight, comes accompanied by humble, folky melodies and is completely and utterly delightful to listen to can be considered a step in the wrong direction, well, here's hoping Wilco stays lost.
Favorite track: "Impossible Germany"
"Shrunken Heads," Ian Hunter
Too many rock 'n' roll veterans treat growing older as a mandate for making "statements." Recent albums from folks like Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp and Elton John have seemed less like music and more like monuments, bogged down by portentousness and self-importance. Thankfully, former Mott the Hoople frontman Ian Hunter hasn't gone that route on his new album, "Shrunken Heads." Instead, the 67-year-old Hunter has delivered a master class in how to examine serious topics without declaiming, sing love songs without simpering and, most important, smile while doing it.
As befits a punk godfather, you can practically hear Hunter sneering gleefully as he takes aim at globalism ("When the World Was Round"), groupthink ("Brainwashed") and the various objectionable aspects of his adopted home ("Soul of America"). But the rich, layered folk-rock backing and Hunter's own gritty, empathetic voice make it clear that he's taking everything with a grain of salt. That some of "Shrunken Head's" best material takes the shape of self-deprecating putdowns ("I Am What I Hated When I Was Young," "Words (Big Mouth)") only adds credence to the notion that rock is a lot more enjoyable when it's delivering good, snotty fun instead of State of the Unions.
Favorite track: "Fuss About Nothin'"
-- David Marchese