Sky Blue Sky Label: Nonesuch Records
Blood on the Slacks Label: Lost Highway Records
They’re friends, musical allies, and blue-blood stock in the Midwest alt.country movement. Coincidentally, Wilco’s latest record, Sky Blue Sky, comes within a few weeks of a new Golden Smog mini-platter called Blood on the Slacks. The 2007 Smog lineup is sans Jeff Tweedy, who’s been holed up in Portland, Maine the past few months finalizing the Wilco record. Upon hearing both Sky and Slacks, I can’t help but think Tweedy would’ve been just as well off splitting time in both camps as he has in years past. He sure didn’t conserve any energy or creativity that shows up on Sky Blue Sky.
Meanwhile, Gary Louris, Marc Perlman, Kraig Johnson, and Dan Murphy have thrown together a scant but respectable eight-song package, which began as a four or five-song EP, featuring two songs from the sessions for Another Fine Day. Both “Can’t Even Tie Your Own Shoes” and “Look at You Now” would’ve stood plenty tall, even on that exceptional 2006 outing. Johnson takes lead vocal on “Shoes” and allows Louris and Murphy the chance to duel back and forth with ringing Jayhawks-like guitars. Louris assumes the vocals on the equally upbeat and electric “Look at You Now,” as well as a nifty take on Bowie’s “Starman.” The other cover here is a stripped-down, congas and acoustic guitar version of Dinosaur Jr’s “Tarpit,” which Smog has been performing live since its early days as a band.
Maybe the fact Slacks is such a short and uncomplicated listen makes Sky that much harder to get into. Or maybe I’m still reeling from the disappointment of 2004’s A Ghost is Born, another real sleeper of an album that displayed minimal Tweedy talent with maximum experimentation. It’s like being stuck in a bad science project that can’t possibly be salvaged but could somehow still eek out a ‘D’ so long as he doesn’t blow up the lab. While I know there are critics who love such diversity from album to album and who gush over constant reinvention of the proverbial wheel, I cannot ignore how blatantly dull and lifeless songs like “You Are My Face” and “Side with the Seeds” are, especially from a guy who once produced masterpieces like “Monday” and, not all too long ago, “Heavy Metal Drummer.”
The addition of avant-jazz guitar “God” (so named recently by Rolling Stone) Nels Cline injects a decidedly Steely Dan feel to much of Sky Blue Sky. “Shake It Off” displays Cline’s more-than-capable guitar amidst Mikael Jorgensen’s silky keys for a Steely Dan-meets-Pink Floyd result. Hushed and sober is the formula most of the way, though, particularly the opener, “Either Way,” and later, “Please Be Patient with Me,” which would lull my nine-month-old to sleep in no time. I’ve said it before and will say it again, even the lowest Tweedy moments come with some amount of saving grace. The last few tracks scoop Sky up from the gutter and provide just enough hope for a brighter day somewhere down the road. “Walken” is a light and airy good time, with a scratchy guitar part and a muted-then-crashing showcase of every instrument in Wilco’s current arsenal. Finally, “What Light” is an effortless acoustic highlight, unburdened by anything excessive, just a good ol’ two-part harmony.
I recall an article I read last summer in support of Golden Smog’s Another Fine Day. It noted that Smog had taken a bit of equipment into a studio on the coast of Spain, breathed the ocean air, drank some wine, and made some hassle-free music. Damn, it seems like such a simple formula, doesn’t it? Murphy was quoted at the time as saying, “I just wanted to bring a few sets of guitar strings, an old amp, and a bunch of two-inch tape. We were going to do no computers, no Pro Tools, all old-school.” Now if he could only get his bandmate and pal Tweedy to fall in line with such a concept, we might get back to the days of wild success both inside and out of this unique supergroup.