Of all of the fallout from the chaos surrounding the release of Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the only thing that concerns a longtime fan like me is Jay Bennett's departure from the band. From the first time I saw Wilco in concert, it was obvious that he was going to be the musical muscle that allowed Jeff Tweedy to pursue nearly any artistic direction he chose. In his contributions to Wilco's last few albums and especially the two Mermaid Avenue collaborations with Billy Bragg Bennett seemed almost a co-leader of the band. However, it turned out that Wilco weren't a democracy, and so last year, following the completion of YHF, Bennett left to follow his own muse, leaving Wilco to well, we'll find out soon enough, I guess.
For now, here's the first post-Wilco flowering of Jay Bennett's muse: The Palace at 4am (Part I), a collaboration with another multi-instrumentalist, Edward Burch. Surprise, surprise, the music here isn't so different from the ornate pop territory that Wilco pursued with Summerteeth. As a matter of fact, assuming that this was written and recorded after YHF, it's musically a bit of a retrenchment. Wilco fans who think that Tweedy's gone too far towards the ozone will find a lot to like.
I know it isn't really fair to compare this album to Wilco's, but certainly Bennett & Burch aren't shying away from that: not only are there a couple of songs from the seemingly endless Woody Guthrie lyrical cache from which the Mermaid Avenue songs were created (including the somber, stately "No Church Tonight"), there are two Tweedy/Bennett songs here, both of which also show up on the already infamous YHF demos. This invites a bit of compare-and-contrast. One of the songs, the pop-rocking "Shaking Sugar," is nearly identical to the YHF demos (where it's titled "Alone"), only with a cool guitar hook, while the other, "Venus Stopped the Train," is completely different.
On the demos, "Venus Stopped the Train" is a gorgeous, sparse piano ballad; here, it gets the full-on chamber-pop treatment. It's a bit too much actually, and the melody gets lost in the clutter. Or maybe the melody gets lost in the singing, which really is my only quibble with this disc: neither Bennett or Burch is that distinctive a lead singer, and all of the studio wizardry in the world can't hide that fact. The vocals cause even the best songs "Puzzle Heart," "C.T.M." and the otherwise near-perfect "Drinking on Your Dime" to suffer. Too bad, because in all other respects this could have been one of the records of the year, instead of an interesting footnote to one of the records of the year.