Up is Down, Black is White
Wilco Triumphs, Mutemath Befuddles

So the big news this week was the breakup of a band that means a lot to me: the accidental icons from Athens, R.E.M.

The nature of a weekly column means I’m the last to the table with thoughts about this, but that’s all right. The extra time has allowed me the chance to really figure out what I want to say. Like a lot of truly big moves they made, the members of R.E.M. announced their split with no fanfare at all. A simple posting on the band’s website, a couple personal reflections from Stipe, Buck and Mills, and that was it.

So it’s been pretty difficult to process this, since it doesn’t feel real. Like a lot of people, I came to R.E.M. late – the first album of theirs I heard was the collection, Eponymous. The first song I heard, I’m pretty sure, was “Fall On Me,” but I was 11 years old when it was released, so hopefully I can be forgiven for not gravitating to it. I’m also pretty certain I made fun of people for liking “The One I Love,” a song my 13-year-old brain thought was too simple to really work.

Yeah, I was a stupid 13-year-old. But luckily, Eponymous blew my freaking mind. Song after glorious song – “Can’t Get There From Here,” “So. Central Rain,” “Driver 8,” “Rockville,” “Radio Free Europe,” and of course “It’s the End of the World as We Know It.” I rushed back to the record store and bought everything I could. I remember being a little disappointed in the horns-free mix of “Finest Worksong” on Document, so thoroughly had I absorbed the Eponymous version. But I also remember hearing Lifes Rich Pageant for the first time. Holy hell, that was an album. “These Days” remains my favorite R.E.M. rock song.

And I stayed with them. Green was a letdown, I thought – too many songs that went nowhere – but I loved (and still love) Out of Time. Yeah, “Losing My Religion,” “Shiny Happy People,” whatever. That album was diverse and fascinating, and full of terrific songs. Case in point: “Half a World Away.” It’s a minor track, a blip in the R.E.M. catalog, but it’s just a great, lilting, yearning tune. Nothing held a candle to Automatic for the People, though. Released my freshman year of college, it was a haunting masterpiece, perhaps their finest overall effort. I remember playing “Sweetness Follows” over the college radio station for a dormmate who had lost a family member. That song has stayed with me for nearly 20 years.

After that, it was a rough road. I loathed Monster, and only reservedly liked the three albums after it. Bill Berry’s departure felt like a mortal wound, one from which they’d never recover, and the abysmal Around the Sun seemed the final nail in a long-overdue coffin. But you know what? The more I know, the more I know I don’t know anything. R.E.M. roared back to life with Accelerate in 2008, and just this year, they released Collapse Into Now, their best album in nearly two decades. It’s most likely going to be on my top 10 list this year. (It’s on the Third Quarter Report list, below.)

Through it all, R.E.M. seemingly never made a move they didn’t want to. They struggled with Berry’s exit, but found ways to carry on, and in recent years, started sounding whole again. I was elated to see that, to see a band I’d admired since middle school pull it together and put out another pair of classics. It rarely happens, and it’s so sweet when it does. I never thought of Collapse Into Now as the band’s final album – it just sounded so vital and alive. But if it is, they went out on a very high note.

In the wider view, R.E.M. has to be part of any conversation about the best American bands of all time. I can’t think of many that matched them for longevity, integrity and (relative) consistency, and I can’t think of any others I like nearly as much. On that score, the band’s breakup is a big deal, and a sad one. But on a more intimate level, I feel like another part of my formative years has passed on. The older I get, the more frequently this will happen, but R.E.M. is the first long-running band from my youth to call it quits. And it’s a strange feeling.

Regardless, I love this band, and will miss them terribly. RIP, R.E.M. Thanks for everything.

* * * * *

So here is a sentence I never thought I’d type: I love the new Wilco album, and I’m not sure about Mutemath’s latest effort. I know, it feels like I’ve wandered into an alternate dimension.

Let’s start with that Wilco album. You all know how I feel about Jeff Tweedy’s crew lately – after releasing their masterpiece, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, in 2002, they shuffled their lineup around and produced three snoozy efforts that drifted from pretentious and unlistenable (A Ghost is Born) to lazy and uninspired (Wilco, The Album). There are friends of mine who have genuinely liked everything Wilco has done over the last 10 years, and I would love to spend a few hours in their heads, because I simply don’t get that.

So as you can imagine, I wasn’t expecting an awful lot from The Whole Love, Wilco’s eighth studio album and its third with the current six-man lineup. I just knew what I was going to get – another half-assed, low-key folksy rock record, with the occasional “experimental” touch, and an overall sound like Tweedy and his fellows had just woken up from an afternoon nap. In short, boring. I keep buying Wilco albums, hoping Tweedy can recapture some of the genius of the YHF era, but I fully expected another snore-inducing letdown.

You could have knocked me over with a single touch after I first heard “Art of Almost,” the seven-minute opening track on this new record. Pulsing electronic drums and bass, lovely synth strings, fascinating sounds blipping in and out, and a propulsive, jammy, live-band coda reminiscent of Built to Spill, all wrapped up in a creepy, foreboding atmosphere. It’s the best Wilco track in years, even if the melody is slight, and it clearly illustrates just what’s been missing from their output for all that time: passion.

Tweedy’s voice just lends itself to sleepwalking through a song, but you can tell pretty easily when he’s engaged with the material, and when he isn’t. Check out the live versions of the Ghost songs on Kicking Television, and compare them with the tired studio takes. That’s what I mean, and that level of commitment is on every track of The Whole Love. “Art of Almost” is a monolith of an opener, but the ten shorter songs that follow match it for drive and energy.

At times recently, it’s sounded like Tweedy didn’t even bother to show up to the recording sessions, like they brought him a microphone and a lyric sheet in bed and barely roused him. On The Whole Love, he throws himself into these sessions, and the result is a record that can stand up next to the likes of Summerteeth and not feel shamed. The album is beautifully produced, a treat for the ears, and the songs, by and large, step up to the plate. “Sunloathe,” for example, is the finest psychedelic Wilco ballad since the Jay Bennett days, and its Sgt. Tweedy production is remarkable.

The Whole Love is a deceptively dark record, its lyrics about waiting endlessly for love, and dealing with it badly when it arrives. “I Might” is a sprightly single about a relationship with serious problems: “You won’t set the kids on fire, but I might, ho ho ho.” “Dawned on Me” paints a picture of a man unwilling to let go, but it does so with one of the most delightful choruses Tweedy has penned in ages. I’m not sure there’s a prettier song in the Wilco catalog than “Black Moon” – Nels Cline’s lap steel is simply heartbreaking, and then those strings come in – but it’s a tragic story of a man who will end up waiting forever.

Even when the second half slips into more typically Wilco material, like the shuffling “Capitol City,” the sense remains that the band really cared about this album. Arrangements remain creative and fascinating, and Cline finally sounds like he belongs, whipping out that blistering guitar only sparingly, while adding invaluable texture to these tunes. In fact, The Whole Love sounds like the album on which this roster finally clicked. To quote another perpetual-letdown band with a good new album, everything is in its right place.

The album ends with a song that could have been a disaster. “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)” is 12 minutes long, and based around a simple acoustic guitar figure that never changes. On previous Wilco albums, this would have been interminable, but here, it’s hypnotic. The production certainly helps – it’s always low-key, but never uninteresting. But the subtle secret here is that Tweedy and company are never bored by this song, so I’m never bored with it.

Yeah, I’m as surprised as you are, but I love this new Wilco album. Hopefully this is the start of a new renaissance for a band I’d all but written off. But even if it isn’t, at least we got one more terrific album from a fully-engaged Jeff Tweedy. Hell, even the bonus tracks on this one are really good. I don’t know what inspired Tweedy this time, but I hope it sticks around. The Whole Love is very, very good.

* * * * *

And then there is Mutemath.

I don’t want you to get me wrong. I don’t dislike Odd Soul, the third album from this New Orleans collective. I just don’t know what to make of it. I’m the guy who thought their first album (and, more specifically, the original, self-released version of their first album) was pretty much perfect. Comparisons to the Police were many and well-deserved, but it was the songs that drew me in. “Chaos,” “Noticed,” “Stare at the Sun,” “Without It,” “Stall Out” – these were some of the best pop songs of 2005. As good as they were on record, Mutemath brought a full-on carnival act to the stage. They were brilliant, and seemed on the cusp of greatness.

And they’ll probably still get there, but Odd Soul sounds to me like a strange left turn away from a lot of the things I admired about the band. It doesn’t help that guitarist Greg Hill departed before the album sessions, leaving Mutemath a trio. The record itself is different enough from their older material that it’s like getting to know a whole new band. This one’s louder and bluesier and less melodic, and more prone to jamming. These are all things that will probably endear them to an audience that hasn’t sampled them yet, but for me, they make loving Odd Soul difficult.

Let’s start with what I like. First, you’d never know that their guitarist left – this is easily the most aggressive, most rocking Mutemath album. This is the record on which they captured the energy that explodes from this band on stage. You know those extended versions they like to play, where they turn “Break the Same” into a 15-minute epic jam, percussion spilling out all over the place, drummer Darren King flailing like a demon-possessed man? That’s the vibe for a lot of Odd Soul, and it’s fantastic.

Speaking of Darren King, he absolutely owns this record. This is a guy who belongs in the top 10 of every “best drummer” poll. He’s a monster, rarely playing on the beat, but providing a rock-solid foundation anyway. A track like “Quarantine” shows off just how good the man is, but it’s his less showy, but no less astounding work on tracks like “Cavalries” that really blows my mind. That song’s a 6/8 workout that erupts into a funk party halfway through. King is just unstoppable on it.

But I feel like the band spent so much time crafting this new sound and not enough writing great songs to anchor it. There are honestly about four songs here I love, songs with compelling melodies. Most of the others exist in this Black Keys-esque blues-rock jam space – the leadoff track “Odd Soul” is a good example – and while that’s fine, it just isn’t what I love about Mutemath. I mentioned how much I love the performances on “Cavalries” earlier, but the song is nothing, and when it erupts halfway through, it’s like the band giving up on structure altogether. As a jam, it’s fantastic. As a song, not so much.

And that’s the filter I’m trying to enjoy the album through. I can imagine this stuff being incredible live. Dig the opening of “Walking Paranoia” – that’s some killer funk-blues guitar and bass interplay. It’s awesome, really. But as much as I like what the band is doing on songs like “Tell Your Heart Heads Up,” there’s nothing grounding it. Cool riff, nice jam, Paul Meany sounds great shouting the title over and over, but there’s no song there. And the seven-minute “Quarantine” is even looser and emptier.

But the band sounds so incredible on this record that I’m trying to like it, even without the strong melodies they usually provide me. Happily, there are some songs that give me what I need, and they’re the ones that, to these ears, sound the most like Mutemath. “Allies” may be my favorite song here, Meany really digging into a fine chorus. “All or Nothing” starts off as an atmospheric piece full of Meany’s electric piano, but at its midpoint it spirals into a deliriously amazing electronic finish. And I quite like “Equals,” which marries the band’s new love of funk with a great refrain.

So that’s where I am with Odd Soul. It’s entirely possible that, given some time, I will embrace this album as thoroughly as I have Mutemath’s previous efforts. I can already feel it leaning that way. But for now, I am left thinking that if this had been the band’s first record, had been my first exposure to them, I’m not sure I would love them the way I do. Odd Soul is a big step in another direction for this band, and while I expect this will go down well live, on record it’s not quite what I’m looking for from Mutemath. Give me time, though.

* * * * *

OK, it’s that time again. Time for the Third Quarter Report, a sneak peek at my top 10 list in progress. This one’s a little weird and tentative, even for me. I’ve taken PJ Harvey right out – its stock has plummeted with me, for some reason, and I’m hoping I can reconnect with it soon. I’ve added a few new ones, too, most prominently Quiet Company – look for a real review of that in a week or two – and Josh Garrels. And I’ve swapped my number one and number two choices, although they go back and forth depending on what week it is.

So, if forced at gunpoint to release my top 10 list right now, here’s what it would look like:

#10. R.E.M., Collapse Into Now.
#9. The Boxer Rebellion, The Cold Still.
#8. Over the Rhine, The Long Surrender.
#7. The Violet Burning, The Story of Our Lives.
#6. Glen Campbell, Ghost on the Canvas.
#5. Bon Iver.
#4. Josh Garrels, Love and War and the Sea In Between.
#3. Quiet Company, We Are All Where We Belong.
#2. Paul Simon, So Beautiful or So What.
#1. Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues.

I need to chew on that for a bit, but I think it’s right. At least, right now. Lots of great music still to come in 2011.

Next week, that proper Quiet Company review, I think. Also look our for reviews of Matthew Sweet, the Bangles, Ryan Adams, Dream Theater, Bjork and Loney Dear. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.