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Wilco gets personal; Dino Jr comes back strong.

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In the first verse of the first song on Wilco's sixth studio album, Jeff Tweedy lays it all out: "Maybe you still love me/Maybe you don't/Either you will or you won't." It's generally agreed upon that the "you" he is addressing on "Either Way" and elsewhere on Sky Blue Sky is either his wife and family or his fans, but what's perhaps more noteworthy is how closely that sentiment resembles one of the main tenets of A.A.: Let go and let God. Sky Blue Sky is Tweedy's first collection of songs since he underwent rehab for painkillers, and the experience hangs over every aspect of the proceedings, placing Tweedy squarely at the center of each song.

As a result, Sky Blue Sky often feels more like a solo album than a band effort, despite Tweedy's repeated statement that this is the best Wilco lineup yet. For the first time since maybe A.M. in 1995, the emphasis is on lyrical content rather than sonic innovation, producing Tweedy's most direct and obviously personal songs to date. They're also some of his best, eschewing the poetical obscurities of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot while showcasing his aggrieved passivity (on display in the 2002 documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart) as well as his uncertainties over family and music. "Oh, I didn't die," he sings plaintively on the title track. "I should be satisfied."

If the songwriting is solid, however, the music, which approximates the no-frills Americana of the band's early albums via the indulgences of their recent work, is confused, aimless, awkward, even annoying. The lineup so fondly touted by Tweedy has been wedged awkwardly into these songs, stranding ace drummer Glenn Kotche and multi-instrumentalist Pat Samsone with little to do but giving free rein to Tweedy and Nels Cline's guitars. Every track gets a shrill and fumbly guitar solo, whether it needs one or not. "Impossible Germany" and "Side with the Seeds" both start strong, showcasing some of the album's best melodies and, on the latter, Tweedy's most soulful performance, but soon enough, both tracks veer off abruptly into noodly and aimless jams that actively detract from the songs' impact. This is the rule, not the exception: Sky Blue Sky sounds unfocused and fragmented, lacking discipline, restraint, and transitions. It would have made a much better solo album. — Stephen Deusner

Grade: C+

Sky Blue Sky - Wilco - (Nonesuch)
  • Sky Blue Sky Wilco (Nonesuch)

Does any release inspire lower expectations than a reunion album? Already 2007 has seen get-back-togethers that range from the forgettable (America) to the excruciating (the Stooges), with upcoming releases from Smashing Pumpkins, the Meat Puppets, and, um, Buffalo Tom falling between those two poles. So it's a surprise that Dinosaur Jr's reunion album, Beyond — the first in nearly 20 years to feature the original lineup of J Mascis, Lou Barlow, and Murph — not only exceeds meager expectations but stands up well against the trio's original output.

Mascis, Barlow, and Murph recorded three albums together before clashing personalities drove bassist Barlow and then drummer Murph from the band. But during their four years together, they elaborated on hardcore's loud-and-fast ethos with open-ended song structures, sprawling jams, and arty guitar effects that Mascis dubbed "ear-bleeding country." Retrospectively vaunted as an also-ran Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr never gained a large enough audience for their music to be intrinsically linked to hardcore or any other scene, so their aesthetic still sounds as sturdy and fresh in 2007 as it did in 1987.

On Beyond, Mascis, Barlow, and Murph re-create their sound casually, slipping into their old, spiky dynamic as they pick up right where Bug left off. They bring convincing heavy-metal thunder to "It's Me," a lovely country shuffle to "We're Not Alone," and hardcore ferocity to "Pick Me Up." Mascis' eternally wounded vocals still contrast with the aggressiveness and abrasiveness of the music, and his guitar jazzily convolutes the riffs against Barlow and Murph's agile rhythm section. The dynamics may not have changed, but they have grown deeper, thanks to lyrics that seem to address two decades of regret and uncertainty. "Will I crumble? Will I fly?" Mascis asks. Beyond is definitely the latter. — SD

Grade: A-

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