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Music Reviews

Screaming Females - Castle Talk
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Sub Pop
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The Walkmen - Lisbon
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Fat Possum
Sky Blue Sky

Rating: 7.7/10 ?

May 22, 2007
It's maddening to see someone criticize a band's album on the notion that they have apparently gone "soft", by which they usually mean to say that the band has chosen a simpler and more straightforward approach to their music, in contrast with a more complex previous sound. What's wrong with simplicity? Can't an album be relevant without the use of experimental twaddle? Certainly, there are those who pull off the experimental perspective better than others, and the same applies to simplicity, but if a band manages to employ both just as well, who are we to blame?

In Wilco's case, Sky Blue Sky shows them doing just this, shedding the experimental pop bent that was so palpable on their last two albums (the era-defining Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and the oft-remarkable but inconsistent A Ghost is Born), while unfurling an affable and technically endowed work that is, yes, tamer than some of their preceding ones. While Tweedy's reasons for returning to his bread and butter roots are not very clear, this should not, by any means, be considered a movement in the wrong direction. That said, it shouldn't realistically be viewed as progress either - it is difficult for an artist to be seen as moving forward with a sound already explored. It doesn't really matter if the band is treading upon terra incognito though, given that the album itself, while not mind-bendingly remarkable or groundbreaking, proves to be a fine enough work.

Despite my initial qualms with the album (comparisons were inevitable and at first observance it obviously didn't rival Wilco's finest albums, Summerteeth and the aforementioned Yankee Hotel Foxtrot), Sky Blue Sky shows its strengths slowly and gently upon repeated listens. Some may disregard it as a tedious and derivative throwback to '70s classic rock, claiming that its main weakness is its lack of innovation and decidedly laid-back feel. If Wilco were paying homage to that era's bands for homage's sake, my opinion of the album would most likely be a rather apathetic one; but the band pull it off very well (and they're obviously having fun doing it) without phoning it in, and as such their effort is to be admired for that alone.

One could argue that one of the reasons Yankee Hotel Foxtrot received such a vast amount of worship, besides its evident relevance in a post-9/11 America, was that its experimental avant-garde sort of rock seemed to really seep into listeners. It was, undoubtedly, an album that felt somewhat new. Sky Blue Sky, on the other hand, is not such an immediate album. And besides no-one could've expected it to be the logical progression from the two that came before it. Whereas Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was air-tight and filled to the brim with subtle layers of sound, the heart of Sky Blue Sky lies in its breezy atmosphere and pacing, resulting in a work that's warm and drifty, with the band in absolute control. Furthermore, it contains some awesome guitar solos that, fortunately, do not get too overwhelming; let's not forget the triumphant intertwined guitar solo in "Impossible Germany," reminiscent of the characteristic dual guitar attacks of Thin Lizzy, or the impossibly cool guitar lines in "Walken."

As for Tweedy, he sounds happier and less cynical than he has for a very long time. Gone are his depressed and paranoid ways. His singing is more emotive and the general tone of his voice radiates confidence and bittersweet melancholy, while his lyrics have become less awkward and abstract and more concise: "Maybe the sun will shine today", he sings with uncertainty in the delightful opener "Either Way." The first five songs, including the beautiful and tranquil "Sky Blue Sky" ("Oh, if I didn't die I should be satisfied I survived / It's good enough for now") and "Side With The Seeds" are in fact a great introduction to the album, even if they're bogged down by "Shake It Off," which is too meandering and bland, sounding rather out-of place. However, the rest manages to impress one way or another with its simplicity and technical prowess, ending on a high note with a bunch of touching and hopeful songs.

On the whole, Sky Blue Sky is not easily judged upon first listen, especially when taking into account the band's body of work; it may seem disappointing to those looking for further progress in one of the best American bands of recent times, but in the end it all comes down to the songs, and most of the ones here are little gems, perfect for a summer morning. Sky Blue Sky may be no masterpiece, but at worst it's a more than worthy entry into Wilco's laudable catalogue - if the title of the closing song "On and On and On" is any indicator, I hope that Wilco don't cease to make great music for many years to come. Indeed, their songs will undoubtedly be welcome.

Reviewed by Pabs Hernandez
A staff writer for LAS, Pablo Hernandez keeps up pretty well with the ever-changing \'indie scene\' from his home in Madrid, Spain.

See other reviews by Pabs Hernandez



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