Chelsea Walls – Jeff Tweedy
To attempt to use Chelsea Walls, the new film score by Wilco frontman
Jeff Tweedy, as some sort of barometer for his genius (or lack thereof) is a
bit of a mistake in approach. Given the success of Yankee
Hotel Foxtrot, though, it's forgivable. For one thing, the seven
instrumentals on Chelsea Walls are low key thematic explorations at
the service of an unseen picture. For another, the true genius of the
recording isn't Tweedy at all, but Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche, who
accompanies the bandleader on the tracks.
Kotche's drumming is subtle and atmospheric underneath Tweedy's swells of
feedback, rolling organs, and slow rickety melodies. In many places, it is
clear that Tweedy isn't used to developing ideas over periods of time longer
than four or five minutes. During the "Opening Titles" – which clock in at
just over the seven minute mark – his playing feels a bit tentative, and
kind of inconsistent in terms of pacing. Though Tweedy is adept at making
warm drones, it is Kotche's muffled and distant percussion work that acts as
the atmosphere that holds the song together.
"The Wallman" is easily the best of the instrumental tracks, with a lush
base and the subtle hint of a melody on an organ that rises in the
background, moving a little bit forward over the course of the song. There
is an even subtler hint of a melody provided on what sounds like bells and
occasional piano. The melody is understated enough that one is left to
define an awful lot of it for himself, but firm enough for one to know
roughly where in the mix it is, where to look for it.
Interspersed throughout are a handful of vocal numbers — "Promising", a
Wilco tune; "When the Roses Bloom Again", an outtake from the Wilco/Billy
Bragg sessions; a cover of John Lennon's "Jealous Guy", sung by Little Jimmy
Scott and backed by the Ken Coomer-incarnation of Wilco (as well as a
mournful trumpeteer); and a pair of tunes sung by actor Robert Sean Leonard
(including "The Lonely 1", a lesser song from Wilco's Being There).
The songs are nice. But, with the exception of "Jealous Guy" – which is
simultaneously forlorn and optimistic – they seem to tread water vibe-wise.
The music stumbles very, very slowly (though not in slow motion). It's not
flowing enough to be ambient music, not impressionable enough to be anything
else. It's like a camera tracking very slowly down the hall of the hotel,
shooting in fine detail so that one can see the stains on the walls, the
cigarette burns on the carpets, some of the places where the doors have been
kicked at from the outside. But the camera doesn't stop to linger at any of
these places. It moves slowly down the hall, like an old man returned to
die, or an old man just recently shown up at the hotel for the first time,
trying hard not to stare at all the things around him. It's hard not to
notice them, though; they make up the periphery of his vision.
The idea that a piece of music needs a visual component to complete it is an
interesting one. On a film score, which is more ideal: a soundtrack that
works in its own merits, or one that is so inextricably tied to the film
that it sounds hollow and empty without the picture it was created to
accompany? It is almost obvious that the music on Chelsea Walls was
intended for a film. It has an incomplete quality to it. And so one is left
looking for something to finish it off.