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February 7, 2003

New Loose Fur lacks luster

In a cavern somewhere near the center of the Earth, the barons of the Chicago music scene congregated to record an album. Jeff Tweedy and Jim O'Rourke played guitar and bass, and sang, Glenn Kotche played the drums, and, word has it, Jesus Christ himself showed up to sit in on keyboards for a few tracks. Roughly half of that, of course, is a joke. I don't know where this album was recorded but my guess is that it was a studio up on the North Side, and that the rumors of a divine presence are restricted only to the ravings of superfans. Whether Tweedy, O'Rourke, and Kotche are even "the barons of the Chicago music scene" is a little doubtful, since O'Rourke lives in New York now, and the success of Wilco (which has been successful since, roughly, my freshman year of high school) has kept Tweedy and bandmate Kotche from having to play regular shows at the Empty Bottle. Every one of these guys is a bit removed from the days when they would be the leaders of anybody's music scene. Did I also mention that this group first played together at the Noise Pop Festival in San Francisco, not in Chicago?

What's the point of all this? My only point is that you're under no obligation to like Loose Fur just because you go to school in Chicago. Sure, a group of prominent local or once-local musicians who ordinarily only collaborate by mixing each other's albums decided to record some songs together. Sure, that album is comprised of six songs of the long, winding, experimental, oh-so-Chicago variety (nothing gets this city going quite like post-rock). Sure, that album is released by Chicago's most prominent independent label, Drag City Records. However, none of this means that you need to greet this album like it's the lost final reel from Greed. It's a fine album, one that I'll wager a number of non-Chicagoans might also enjoy, and one that doesn't need to be tainted with hometown boosterism.

One issue I have with post-rock is that the songs never appear to be about anything. This meaninglessness, I know, is just another way of subverting rock music conventions, but I'm surprised that lyrics accompany the songs at all, given that they don't appear to have much of a connection. On the opening "Laminated Cat," for instance, Tweedy sings about "weeding out the weekends" in every season of the year, and the repetition of this phrase means, I presume, that the changing of the seasons doesn't really matter to most of us. I presume this is what he means but, of course, the music doesn't underline either the chorus or any one of the verses, so it's hard to be sure. Similarly, the O'Rourke-penned lyrics to "Elegant Transaction" and "So Long" read a bit like John Ashberry's most unfocused toss-offs, and aren't given any form by the gentle guitar plucking that accompanies them.

Loose Fur is an exercise in drawing meaning from the music, which admittedly can be fairly interesting in its own right. "Laminated Cat" features a series of gentle electronic howls that slowly disappear during the song. "So Long" takes a fairly simple melody, breaks it in two, and then regenerates it over the course of nine minutes. "Elegant Transaction" and "You Were Wrong" are about as straightforward as the proceedings ever get: the first song plods along for about four minutes before breaking out into something like a hootenanny for the final three; the second song is a vivisected Jeff Tweedy melody in the "Radio Cure" mold, although it remains more subdued than its forebear. It does, however, feature a recognizable guitar line and a traditional rock time signature. The instrumental "Liquidation Totale" is fairly enjoyable, structured around a 10 second riff that's interrupted by long, meandering movements. "Chinese Apple" closes the proceedings, and may be the single best embodiment of the spirit of Loose Fur: it's a folk song as gentle as anything you've ever heard, and bows to post-rock norms only through the nonsense lyrics, which repeat several lines of Tweedy's "Heavy Metal Drummer."

Collaborations like this rarely ever produce the best work of the collaborators. Loose Fur, of course, is no different. I doubt it will make anyone forget Eureka or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, nor is it the precise collision of the sensibilities contained on those albums. It's a nice opportunity for O'Rourke, Tweedy, and Kotche to try something different, and it's a nice opportunity for fans to listen to something different. But it's a good thing that they have other bands.