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Jeff Tweedy
Chelsea Walls

If the actual walls of the Chelsea Hotel — walls weathered by age and fame, dented and stained, blind witnesses to punk-rock legend — could make their own music, it probably would sound nothing like Jeff Tweedy's mournful, mysterious score for Ethan Hawke's directorial debut, "Chelsea Walls." The seven instrumental pieces written and performed by Wilco frontman Tweedy and drummer Glen Kotche are endeavors in rootsy experimentalism, traversing from hypnotic drone to savage rhythm to blissful guitar tweakings. Tweedy rends a new sound from his palette of country, rock, noise and folk, something wide and elusive that's not really any of those things, just as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco's latest album, is all of them.

Those looking for "Foxtrot Part Deux" won't find it in the thick, echo-y drones of "The Wallman," or the squealing locomotive propulsion of "Red Elevator." Many of these tracks, especially "Hello, Are You There?" and "Finale," are built on a calming repetition undercut by a real sense of restlessness; however beautiful Tweedy's piano tinklings sound amid the cyclical guitar riff in "Finale," the music feels like a soundtrack to constant motion — someone walking or, better yet, swimming, floating towards a point off somewhere in the distance. A handful of these songs sound like trains rumbling past, a chugging sound of steel on steel, defiant in their repetition and boldly recalling traditional American music — its sound and its purpose.

The experimental streak Tweedy's fostered since the first track on "Being There," and which has played a more prevalent role in his songwriting consistently since then, finds its way onto this album right from the beginning. Some electronic derring-do on "Opening Titles" makes Tweedy's guitar sound like a didgeridoo; I'm still not entirely convinced it's not. Walls of keyboards, feedback, and subtle tribal drumming color Tweedy's mostly controlled and thoughtful compositions, hiding some pretty nitty-gritty gee-tar playin' under some serious knob turning. At 7-11 minutes in length, some of these tracks smack of self-indulgence, but such are the problems with releasing a film score as a popular-music CD.

The rest of the disc is filled out with hits and misses. The hits: "When the Roses Bloom Again," a spooky lament taken from the Mermaid Avenue sessions with Billy Bragg, and "Promises," an older acoustic-based Wilco tune. Also, Jimmy Scott's take on John Lennon's "Jealous Guy" is a heartbreaking, soulful affair. The misses: a cover of Wilco's "The Lonely 1" performed by "Chelsea Walls" actor Robert Sean Leonard, and Leonard's cover of the traditional song, "Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling." Leonard's voice, though able, seems to be missing a heart behind it, and his words fall flat out of his mouth.

Fortunately, Tweedy's instrumental pieces make up the majority of the album. And if they're not exactly what Wilco fans are expecting, they at least prove that the growth and brilliance Tweedy demonstrated on Foxtrot weren't a fluke.

by Neal Block

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