Wilco, Taking It Breezy

"Sky Blue Sky" is Wilco's first album with versatile guitarist Nels Cline, left. Frontman Jeff Tweedy is at center. (By Michael Segal)
By David Malitz
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, May 15, 2007

W ilco's sixth studio album, "Sky Blue Sky," can be described in many ways. A slight return to the band's alt-country roots. A few steps further down the road into jam band territory. A breezy listen that's far removed from the dense experimentalism that defined the band's 2002 breakthrough, "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," and 2004's "A Ghost Is Born." A showcase for lead guitarist Nels Cline's fantastic fretwork.

But here's one that may be most accurate -- kind of boring.

It's as pleasant a bore as you're likely to hear, mind you. If there were an award for background music of the year, "Sky Blue Sky" would be the clubhouse leader right now. Frontman Jeff Tweedy and his latest incarnation of the band have crafted an album that just floats along casually and innocently, commanding attention for only brief moments before fading back into its monotonous tranquillity.

It means that "Sky Blue Sky" is easier to digest than either of the band's past efforts but is no more rewarding. The slippery production and claustrophobic arrangements are gone, but so is much of the group's muscle. On every album to date there were at least a few songs on which Tweedy and his cohorts simply rocked. Now? Just yacht rock. Steely Dan is a much more accurate reference point than the Replacements these days. Everything is played with great precision, but mid-tempo songs like the title track and "Leave Me (Like You Found Me)" are so smooth they become sterile.

At least the band, and more importantly Tweedy, seems comfortable in its own skin, which is apparent from the start. "Maybe the sun will shine today / The clouds will blow away," Tweedy sings in his signature cigarette-stained drawl on album opener "Either Way," one of the tracks that should appeal to Wilco's older fans. As far as opening statements go, it's a far cry from the bitterness of his last two lead tracks, "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" and "At Least That's What You Said." The rosier outlook could be attributed to Tweedy kicking his painkiller addiction or finally settling on a consistent lineup after a few years of constant changes. Whatever the case, he seems happier, as well as happier to share the spotlight. As anyone who witnessed his control-freak tendencies in the 2002 documentary "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" knows, this is no small shift.

The main beneficiary is Nels Cline, who makes his Wilco recording debut on "Sky" after touring with the band the past few years. Cline has long been a legend in avant-garde circles, but he shows his versatility on this set. His jazz-tinged licks and tasteful noodling are the driving forces behind "Impossible Germany" and "Shake It Off," but at times his virtuosic playing is a crutch. The band seems content to let Cline do his thing while the rest of the members lock in on a mellow jam.

"What Light" does the best job of synthesizing Wilco's new aesthetic with Tweedy's classic, Americana songwriting style. The backing vocals recall the Band, clearly another major influence, but nothing on "Sky" carries the emotional heft of the Canadian collective's best work. "Sky Blue Sky" may be perfect for a lazy summer night under the stars, but once summer's over, will anyone still care?

DOWNLOAD THESE: "Either Way," "Impossible Germany," "What Light"

Wilco is scheduled to perform June 21 at Merriweather Post Pavilion.

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