Sky Blue Sky
Like a wild animal, Jeff Tweedy was at his most vicious, his most volatile, when wounded and bleeding. A few albums back, the embattled bandleader was channeling his addiction and his depression into Wilco's most powerful work; his inner turmoil was gasoline to the group's already fiery talent. Producer Jim O'Rourke reined in the vigor and vitriol and helped make masterpieces out of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born, the alt-country heroes' most thrilling, unpredictable albums.
Sky Blue Sky is the first finished product from the newly straightened-up, flying-right Tweedy. Floating on an unwavering course, its pace subdued and medicated, the album never discovers the exhaustive depth and emotion of Wilco's previous triumphs. It's focused on some vague middle distance the color of its title, sounding like the first words spoken after awaking from a coma, half-formed and sluggish but swollen with potential. "I survived—that's good enough for now," Tweedy sings on the downbeat title track, and it's true—we'd rather have him here than not. But you'd think that after surviving, surely he and the band could muster more than the lazy, jammy, '70s FM drawl of opener "Either Way" or the white-guy blues of "Hate It Here."
Tweedy's knack for gorgeous melody and wry lyricism is still evident, Nels Cline's guitar occasionally tears off jagged slices of these largely linear songs (check out the just-right cacophony of "You Are My Face"), and the other players come together to fill in the gaps. The whole album sounds tracked through on one take, the six-piece band showing a loose, organic evenness that harks back to Wilco's earliest days. It's not an unwelcome shift from their belligerent experimentalism of before, but the songs just aren't strong enough to take that ease to its fullest. "Impossible Germany" and "Walken" are exceptions, sweetly swaying into punchy, raucous crescendos; "Side with the Seeds" takes it too far, spooling a noodly guitar solo straight to Nowheresville.
It's Mikael Jorgensen's organ that comes to the fore most often—a wholesome, Southern gospel chime that resounds like a call to a better place, especially on "What Light," the album's soaring lead single. If that's the soulful siren Tweedy wants to chase, it very well could lead to some exciting places. But for now, he's meandering on the road to recovery, not quite here, not quite there. JONATHAN ZWICKEL
THE SEA AND CAKE
Word has it that this prog- and Tropicalia-influenced collection is intended to be Chicago quartet the Sea and Cake's "rock" record. Maybe if you mean "rock-a-bye," baby. This post-rock supergroup of sorts—featuring former Shrimp Boat frontman Sam Prekop, ex-Coctails guitarist/keyboardist Archer Prewitt, Tortoise drummer/studio whiz John McEntire, and bassist Eric Claridge—are only barely flushed at their most roiled. The Sea and Cake have always managed to find the lullaby in everything from Krautrock to languid jazz. And what's most notable about Everybody—the band's seventh album and first since 2003—is what's not on it.
Prior to 1997, the Sea and Cake released eclectic, buoyant indie pop. Then, with fourth album The Fawn, the group delved with full commitment into the syncopated fusion of delicate digital patter with sunny, glinting grooves. This mellow interplay between fluttering synths, crystalline guitars, programmed percussion, and partially detached vocals continued in only marginally differing, plasticine permutations through 2003's One Bedroom. But Everybody shifts from cruise control by eschewing the silicon.
Production on Everybody was placed in the hands of Brian Paulson, while former full-time engineer McEntire concentrated on live drums. The resulting band sounds more like... a band, more melodically breezy than brittle, previously approaching tranquil to the point of neutered. Admittedly, the motifs aren't veering into out jazz or mawkish twang, but neither does the metronome swing like the Sword of Damocles above the group. Standout tracks such as "Up on Crutches," "Crossing Line," "Exact to Me," and "Left On" flirt with the Sea and Cake's reinvigorated ability to balance the meticulous with the lustrous. TONY WARE
The Sea and Cake play with the Zincs on Tues May 15 at Neumo's, 8 pm, $16, 21+.
You can play it safe, you can get carried away, or you can be the Fratellis. Having already done quite well back in the UK, Glasgow's heroes are here to see if Americans care, with a domestic release and a national tour of joyous, out-of-control, glam-wrecked ironic pop. Somehow, it's all held up—it's still obnoxious and addictive, it's still as arrogantly manic and sarcastically conventional as ever. It's the sort of thing little brothers would make to ruin genres.
The Fratellis are a band lock-stepped with Britain's long-running post-punk resurrection, all striped shirts and skinny-riff clichés. The main attraction, then, is how they push the banality to such ridiculous levels—hand claps, brass blasts, yelps from nowhere—that the retro loops back in on itself, becoming a fun and clever affair.
There's "Henrietta," which sounds like everyone else until it swaggers with jab-jab guitars, cartoon voices, a big pop chorus, and colorful horns ripped right out of Blur's The Great Escape. "Cuntry Boys & City Girls," deleted for the U.S., is even better. Think the Specials and Space and then Factory Records, leather jackets, and fiestas. "Creepin' up the Backstairs" is post-punk as ADHD clap-along. But "Chelsea Dagger" steals everything. It goes, "Do do-doo do-doo." And then, "Doo-do-doo do-doo do."
Costello Music is the sound of hoary old genre ideas exaggerated until they're interesting. The production is a blinding glare, the band is crass to the mechanics of modern UK indie, exposing the ridiculous retreat to post-punk with all the subtlety of a caricature, and coming off, in the end, like the Strokes rubbing two balloons together. It's an easy road, for sure, but the Fratellis have made a mess of it. Progress without progress. It's a start. GUY FAWKES
The Fratellis' slot opening for Black Rebel Motorcycle Club on May 13 has been canceled.