Born Again in the USA – Loose Fur
Drag City 309
It's all in the title really. The newest from Wilco's Jeff Tweedy and Glenn Kotche, with long time conspirator Jim O'Rourke is a cheeky, irreverent look backwards at the musical sins
of yesteryear and a chuckling slap to the face of anyone who can't mix their
religion with a little drugs and good cheer. What else should we expect
from a trio whose name is a single syllable or a Southern slur away from
naming the dark one himself? No, not Voldemort, the other one, with the
horns. But if AC/DC is on the highway to hell and Slayer is on the sleek
black bullet train to hell, then Loose Fur is long-stridin', head-bobbin'
and finger-snappin' its way down the sidewalk to hell, half chuckling.
The eponymous debut from these crazy kids came with all the disclaimers:
side-project, one-off, studio collaboration, the output of three guys who
saved their really good stuff for their really good projects. The result
was intriguing and often engaging, but it couldn't measure up to the
brilliance of their more carefully considered output, or so the thinking
went. But Born Again in the USA doesn't feel like a step-child
project; no one's holding back here. This time around, the trio isn't
merely feeling each other out, tossing ideas around to see what bounces.
The songs are more focused, more developed, and a helluva lot more fun.
Sonically they wander into the proggish fens and backwaters with relish and
the glee, the absence of which knelled the death of prog and its "I'll write
about the birth of music" nonsense. Here, they rock because it's freakin'
cool, not to show you that they're cool. There are moments that conjure the
excesses of Yes and the pretentiousness of Rush and the grandiosity of King
Crimson, but they're cut with humor. When the frequently beautiful "An
Ecumenical Matter" slides into a Floydian drift, replete with tick-tock
percussion from Kotche, they play it straight. But there are achingly
pristine tones and moments in "Pretty Sparks" and "Wreckroom" that those
sage heroes Bill S. Preston, Esq. and Ted "Theodore" Logan would deem most
excellent, and it's hard to take that too seriously. During the sprawling
"Wreckroom," when they're laying it on thickest and those mighty-toned,
twinned guitars are launching fist in fist into the ether, the band breaks
it and, within moments, devolves into a rapid-fire, clattering, ragged-edged
blister of noise that's abrasive, decidedly non-proggy, and hilariously fun.
Lyrically of course they're stepping on swollen tones. In "The Ruling
Class," Christ pops up on the street shooting smack, smoking crack and
making his way across town, so…ya know…"find him if you want to get
found." He throws on a new jacket and sits in on a meeting with "the upper
management of the new regime" (read: the Man), but even then he's just
"drinking beer trying to get down." The sacrilege (or is it blasphemy? I
always get those two mixed up) is backed by a breezy jangle and some
easy-going whistling; in other words, best not to take it too seriously. On
"Thou Shalt Wilt", O'Rourke's counting backwards, knocking the Ten
Commandments off his list one at a time. Number seven (that's adultery for you
heathens) won't do; the bride just looks too good. He wants nothing to do
with #4 (Keep the Sabbath holy heathens, keep up) because he doesn't "want
to desecrate [his] only day to sleep in late." And just when that collar's
getting itchy, he finishes it all off with what sounds like, "You shall have
no other guy but me." Does that make it better, or worse? Hard to say, but
it won't be long before you're distracted, wondering just what the hell
Tweedy does mean when he says "When I say she's a rapist, that really isn't
what I mean."
So what's getting lost in all this rambling about prog-rock and irreverence
toward the sacrosanct is exactly how damn good this album is. In the end,
it comes down to songs: the debut lacked them, this one has them by the
bushel. The "Hey Chicken" opener is a hard-driving doozy. "Apostolic" is
all elbows – compartmentalized complexity, sharp corners and good-rockin'
fun, and "Wanted", the bouncy, piano-driven closer (which sports the album's
best line – "She's not so well-rounded/ she has points you don't see") might
just be the best of the bunch. It isn't an excellent album. It is,
however, frequently brilliant and never boring, and that's alright with me.
If I'm going to the fire below because of the music I choose, at least I'll
be snappin' and whistlin'.