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Loose Fur - Born Again in the U.S.A.

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Artist: Loose Fur

Album: Born Again in the U.S.A.

Label: Drag City

Review date: Mar. 9, 2006

Formal experimentation in pop music has frequently drawn from the avant-garde, using a slew of loaded languages ranging from bludgeoning violence to inhuman instrumental proficiency. These can serve as a statement of radicalism, or perhaps more ideally, as something more honest and individualistic than other pop music. There is a sense of intended delineation, a desire to reclaim a beacon of artistry in an extremely saturated and commercial cultural medium. Other times, the goal is subversion, to mimic the structures and baggage, while containing some essential kernel of opposition.

Jeff Tweedy, Jim O’Rourke, and Glenn Kotche have been working in this fragmented tradition for quite some time now, and since their first Loose Fur album, seem to view this nominal “side-project” as a somewhat relaxed environment to further develop the ideas that they do not want to be held responsible for in their solo careers (though this is perhaps a misnomer considering the collective contributions of Wilco). Using songs that they kicked around for years, the first Loose Fur album showed Tweedy and O’Rourke -- songwriters who had previously felt the need to reinvent themselves with each step -- idling for a little bit longer on their respective solo breakthroughs. O’Rourke was clearly enjoying the use of repetitive pop motifs as a minimalist nod, Tweedy was enjoying his broadening experimental palette, and Kotche maintained his acute ability to sound comfortable, no matter the scenario. The shared point of intersection was an interest in writing clever songs that seemed to convey their wit more than any given emotion. The name of the project summed it up pretty clearly: Loose Fur could be both a description of the material and a joke-y pun on rock’n’roll satanic references.

At the very least, Born Again in the USA shows the group attempting to branch out further. Granted, Tweedy and O’Rourke seem unable to shed the respective weight of their personalities, but in the same token, Loose Fur seems to be about these musicians reveling in their own skin, rather than trying to eschew and annihilate them as in their other projects.

O’Rourke’s deliberate and referential production methods are once again a focal point. Whereas other strains of experimental pop music thrive in perceived transgressions, O’Rourke’s strength is that he thrives in familiarity. The nod to 10cc’s “Lazy Days” in “Wreckroom” stands as one of the most apparent examples. Yet, while Sparks-isms and McCartney-isms are undoubtedly littered throughout, there is always something difficult to place. There is an ingenuity to the resonant and distorted guitar on “Thou Shalt Wilt,” or the strong combination of the bassline, piano and clattering percussion on “An Ecumencial Manner,” or the filtered and reverberating synthesizer ambience of “Wreckroom” that easily stands as the album’s highlight.

Having said that, however, the album is the most painfully smug in either Tweedy or O’Rourke’s catalog. Without the crutch of the disingenuous narrators and overarching themes of Insignificance and Halfway to a Threeway, O’Rourke’s lyrical humor isn’t grounded and seems tossed off. The sole exception is perhaps “Answers To Your Questions,” which despite its sharp remarks, feels to be about something other than a comedic premise.

Tweedy’s lyrics, which have traditionally been somewhat impressionistic and obtuse in their poetics, are more concrete here, perhaps prompted by O’Rourke’s influence. “The Ruling Class” is a notable example because it manages to play up the political ramifications of Peter Medak’s excellent social satire by invoking the Jack the Ripper/Jesus Christ character and perhaps suggesting another public figure who waffles between widespread murder and a belief in himself as the new messiah. Of course, Tweedy’s frequent ambiguity makes it so that it could just as easily be a personal confession. Songs like “Hey Chicken” and “Wanted” are less unclear, though perhaps to detriment.

While a well-concocted snotty attitude may be a decisive factor in any number of great rock albums, Born Again in the USA feels lazy without any particular agenda. It’s good for a laugh and a couple of listens, but ultimately does not resonate.

By Ira Epstein

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