Born Again in the USA
(Drag City; 2006)
By David Greenwald | 1 April 2006
Please choose one of the following topics and expand upon it in a cohesive, sophisticated essay. Be sure to cite materials from both lecture and source readings, as well as at least one recorded work.
1. Discuss Dan Bejar’s “precious American underground” in the light of the commercialization and usurpation of independent music by the American mainstream.
2. Compare and contrast Kid A and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. How do these albums illuminate the themes of the course?
3. Elaborate on the role of Jim O’Rourke in Wilco’s critical ascendance, particularly the relevance of the Loose Fur project. Your discussion should focus particularly on the progression of Tweedy’s neuroses.
Jeff Tweedy aches. There he is, gravel-throated, hunched trembling over an acoustic guitar, pained and weighty with gravitas. Likewise, the only comedy Jim O’Rourke knows is black. His own material (which includes more than enough full-length experimental drone albums) and his collaborative efforts with Sonic Youth and Wilco have been cool, meticulous, and quite serious. Wilco itself has endured a continuous series of difficulties and shake-ups, rotating band members and suffering through the well-documented production of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and the subsequent label battles over its eventual release. Even the group’s follow-up, A Ghost Is Born, was heavily influenced by Tweedy’s addictions and rehabilitation. It’s no secret that Tweedy and his band are driven, but even the most efficient engine has to let off steam.
That release comes in the form of Loose Fur, the collaboration between Tweedy, O’Rourke, and Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche. The group’s first, self-titled album was basically an extended anything-goes jam session, recorded during the YHF sessions to relieve the pressures of crafting Foxtrot. With Tweedy cleaned up and comfortable enough with his band’s current line-up to release a live album (and O’Rourke done with his stint with Sonic Youth and hooking up with singer-songwriter cutie Beth Orton, collaborator-style), many of the causes for the introspection and serious emotionality that went in to the last several Wilco albums and O’Rourke’s own Insignificance have evaporated. What’s left is Loose Fur’s Born Again In The USA, which is only as serious as Capital R (for “Richards, Keith”) Rock ‘n’ Roll will allow.
“Hey Chicken” sets the stage with a compact, sizzling electric guitar riff that screams Tweedy during the verses but breaks down like trademark O’Rourke. Throughout the album, the musical back-and-forth between the two keeps the songs lively and the listener guessing. The mostly instrumental “Apostolic” is a prime example, sung mainly by Tweedy but with a shimmering piano section that resembles O’Rourke’s Insignificance material. The group is a trio for a reason, of course, and Kotche’s drum fills are perfect for O’Rourke’s interlaced guitars. One can’t help but wonder what John Stirratt might have done with these bass lines, but the arrangements are more than adequate. Abandoning the hypnotic instrumental passages and the experimental frittering of the debut, the songs of Born Again In The USA are nuggets of twitchy, catchy rock.
O’Rourke sings a paltry three songs, though they’re all noteworthy enough. “Stupid As The Sun” may be the fastest, grungiest thing he’s ever done, while “Answers To Your Questions” is pretty, relationship stuff – Jim tells his lover off, probably secretly hates self, etc. The breezy “Thou Shalt Wilt” is the best of the triad. Any song about the Ten Commandments that begins “Now gather round, and check this shit out” gets my immediate attention, and the song is inoffensively silly and irreverent.
Tweedy’s songs are consistent, if predictable. “Pretty Sparks” has some cute wordplay with him singing “Don’t be overrated or berated or identified,” but ironically the song lacks an interesting chorus and becomes forgettable after descending into guitar noodling. The beautiful “Wreckroom” sounds like a YHF outtake. In the album’s one real moment of bleakness comes “Wanted,” which follows in the vein of “Venus Stop The Train” (a Tweedy cut from the YHF sessions ultimately released in aborted form by ex-Wilcoer Jay Bennett), describing a sympathic figure who’s “not so well rounded / she has points you don’t see” rather than one from whom Tweedy “kept my distance / because she falls in love with everyone.”
The somber tone comes too late in the album to provide a real sense of dramatic closure, and Loose Fur does lack much of the emotional heaviness that provides the substance of the members’ main projects. The disc tends to coast now and then, though it’s hard to say if that’s due to chinks in the songwriting armor or the band’s straightforwardness. Still, rock for rock’s sake is not without meaning.
The video for “Hey Chicken” (made available on YouTube by Drag City in a brilliant move of Internet democraticization) is a well-edited compilation of clips from what appears to be the Japanese version of the Mighty Morphing Power Rangers, dancing in sync with the music of Tweedy and co. Loose Fur is a side project for a reason – it’s too much fun. The album is a reminder that rock doesn’t always have to be serious to have an effect. I like personal demon battling as much as the next guy, but without some optimism, that kind of darkness can be overwhelming. Born Again In The USA gives us something to look forward to.