Near Life Experience

You are perhaps aware that this record has been available for conspicuous consumption for months. If so, I hope you strapped on the feed bag, since it was without question one of the best records released this past piss-poor year. (Just thought I'd say so before time was up.) There are a few other bygone '96 CDs worth the redirection of your attention -- the Melvins' Stag, for reasons stated in July; the Louvin Brothers' Satan Is Real reissue, for bearing the greatest ingenuous album art in record-industry history; the Cherubs' Short of Popular, for further blurring the distinction between "stupid" and "great"; and, yes, goddamn it, even Odelay -- but to cite each of them with New Year's rearing up and all would beg an all-too-predictable numeric sequence, which in turn would only highlight the fact that I have yet to hear that ubiquitous Sleater-Kinney album. Oops -- there goes indie cred.

Least impressive of Near Life Experience's many coups is that lauded by most of the criterati -- namely, the fact that the record was produced at all. Come, you see, lost half their permanent lineup when bass player Sean O'Brien and drummer Arthur Johnson opted out. The split was actually a relatively minor hurdle, considering the fact that Come's unusual dual guitar mesh, as rendered by Thalia Zedek and Chris Brokaw, is what has always stood out. And even though a recent performance at Bottom of the Hill was more subdued than I expected, all of Come's, dare I say it, art was still in evidence. It's not just any earnest, depressive, humorless outfit -- singing about (unfortunately) pat subject matter like drug addiction and suicidal depression -- who can duck the heartless ridicule of reprobates like, uh, myself. Abrupt key, mood, and rhythmic changes like those on "Weak as the Moon" and "Secret Number" only further demonstrate Come's craft -- their ability to avoid typical verse-chorus structure while retaining emotional punch and without sounding like weak prog rock. And who else could pull off a seedy lyric like "Sitting still and pulling hairs/ From a comb I found underneath the stairs" ("Shoot Me First") while conveying heartbreak? An impending New Year's Eve isn't a good setting for auditing a death wish, but just wait until the morning after, when most of us will only wish we could die. Then try Near Life Experience, and discover how persuasive gloom can be. Just remember you have a whole new year to enjoy, or survive.

-- Michael Batty

Being There

An album's "live energy" has never particularly interested me. This concept was heavily bandied about in the early '70s, at that musical moment where so many bands stripped down and followed the Rolling Stones into the hinterlands to make "roots" music. In fact, by the time live energy -- that is, what you get when a bunch of folks sit around in a circle with jugs and washboards jamming on ol' Jerry Jeff Walker tunes with the recording light on -- is properly processed and digitized and ends up on my CD player, it seems as ludicrous a construction as if the band recorded one track at a time, during separate space shuttle missions over a 10-year period. And the vocabulary that's used to describe these albums -- words like "natural," or "organic." What is this? A Metamucil commercial? Or even worse, the word "warm," as in "a warm, live sound." Ooh, baby. That makes me think -- on a good day -- of porridge. And what do rock and porridge have in common? (I don't have a punch line -- the Eagles?) As a critic/consumer, I'd prefer a breakfast of Diet Pepsi and last night's Chinese. To make matters worse, these "warm" albums are invariably full of photos of the guys emoting next to mike booms and drum stands, with headphones on, caught in the creative moment. "Yeah," you're supposed to say, "that was one historic jam session."

Wilco's Being There is exactly -- nay, proudly -- this kind of album. A two-CD organic jam, with the photos to prove it. And there seems to be very little tongue-and-cheek to let us know that 24 years have passed since Exile on Main Street was released. That's not to say the album's bad. Jeff Tweedy has a wonderful, malleable voice, and is genuinely moving (emotionally, not intestinally) when he's sappy. Tweedy's accomplices are more than accomplished, and the songs vary nicely, ranging from Stones/Small Faces roots rock to Nitty Gritty Dirt Band Spartan folk to the melancholic/melodramatic piano of Beach Boy Brian Wilson. No -- not bad, just conservative. Most of the songs on Being There seem designed to fit pre-existing forms (rock's Platonic Ideals): The instrumentation leans toward acoustic/tube amp purity; the guitar and fiddle and mandolin lines are set on infinite deja vu; the chord progressions, for the most part, stay clear of any fresh cow pie; and the lyrics even focus self-consciously, but earnestly, on this '70s organic/essentialist rock aesthetic. As Tweedy croons in "Sunken Treasure": "I was named by rock 'n' roll/ I was maimed by rock 'n' roll/ I was tamed by rock 'n' roll." I could have guessed. I was feeling kind of warm.

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