Life After Wilco

Jay Bennett and Edward Burch use their rich history to create a new CD of pop charm.

It hasn't been easy to avoid the highly publicized Wilco saga for the past year, but in case you somehow missed it, here's a summary: They replaced their long-time drummer; got booted by their unthinking label for what may be the record of their career, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot; and gave the lie to the notion that giving music away free on the net will hurt sales. They streamed the becalmed YHF from their website while waiting for a new deal, then saw it debut at 13 in Billboard after its April 23 release on Nonesuch. Not least, after the record was completely finished, and just weeks before heading out on tour, the band parted company with Jay Bennett, he of the wizardly production ideas and dynamic stage presence, the shimmering guitar solos and tasteful, imaginative keyboard work; the signature blond dreadlocks and cheeky TV interview style.

Of the split, Bennett says, "You feel these things in your gut ... It wasn't the playing, it wasn't the ideas. I felt it in my gut at some point. Have you ever been in a relationship that was like that? You know, you can say things like 'he never did the dishes,' but that's not really it, you know? Every guy who's ever left a rock band in the history of the world has made girlfriend breakup analogies, and many of them are accurate."

Perhaps he doesn't sit around and mope after breakups, either, but Bennett emerged from Wilco as if shot from a gun. He turned to his longtime collaborator Edward Burch, and the pair worked almost nonstop to release their debut, The Palace at 4am (Part 1), on the same day as Wilco's YHF. A supporting tour is bringing the duo to Club Congress on May 31.

"I think there was a two-day lag," Bennett says. "I called up Edward ... about six in the morning two days after the Wilco thing and just in a fall of tears called him up and said ok, I'm goin' for it dude. Are you on board? 'Cuz I can do this by myself, but I don't want to. I want to do it with you."

Not that they had to start from scratch. Bennett and Burch had been friends and writing buddies for eight years, since they met while both lived in Champaign, Illinois, and Midwest power-pop favorite Titanic Love Affair was Bennett's main project. Later, says Bennett, "Every time Wilco took a break, Ed and I started making a record, so we had a good head start on it. We had about 50 songs mostly done. Some were recorded, some were just in our head. We are calling (the debut) 'Part One,' letting people know that there'll be a part two and a part three."

Longtime friends at Undertow Records provided a label home and encouragement to complete the record for an April release and tour. The simultaneous release with YHF gave fans two great reasons to want to see Bennett in live performances. Might Burch feel a bit left out of the hoopla? "I knew that Jay was a very talented musician even before he ever joined that band," says Burch, "because we started working on some of this project even before he had ever gotten the call to be a member of Wilco ...

"It's fun that because of his connection to that band, people are probably paying a little more attention to us from the get-go than they otherwise would have." He cites the contrasting example of Wilco bassist John Stirratt's side project, Autumn Defense. "I think (it's) just an amazing record but it didn't get a hell of a lot of attention, probably because it was just this side thing he's doing while Wilco is his main project."

Stirratt is credited as a contributor to Palace, as are former Wilco drummer Ken Coomer (who also contributed to YHF before being replaced by Glen Kotche for the bulk of recording), and multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston, who lost his Wilco slot before Being There. Otherwise, says Bennett, "We've got a trumpet player and a string section, but 80 plus percent is just the two of us."

Just the two of them, it turns out, can make a boatload of wonderful noise. Bennett plays drums and percussion, several kinds of guitars and an assortment of traditional keyboard instruments and synthesizers, as well as orchestra bells, bass, banjo, orchestra bells and the fancifully named stylophone and tiple. Burch plays many of the same things (including stylophone and tiple) and takes turns on vocal leads and dreamy harmony backing with Bennett.

For all the other talents Wilco fans will miss, Bennett's voice may actually be his most striking musical asset, and also the one least effectively tapped in Wilco. It's a stunning, molten bass so rich it seems to burn from the core of earthiness. Palace sets it in a context that maximizes its impact. The songs range over an expanse of pop subgenres practically defined by trebly boys and girls, so the contrast alone is attention grabbing. But the record also features darker material to which Bennett's voice lends an eerie authority.

Bennett says he and Burch, both aficionados of lavish '60s pop, wanted Palace to show the range of their work to date. "Some of it's pop--there's some good old fashioned Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello--then there are some moody ballads and my angry minor key ex-girlfriend songs."

Burch says, "This first record, there are so many different things going on because it's your first record and you just sort of throw everything at the wall and do it in larger, broader strokes. I would say that it's not necessarily a very focused record, but it was just something we really enjoyed doing."

Two Palace tracks credit Woody Guthrie with a co-write. "Little White Cottage" and the gothic country ballad, "No Church Tonight" are of a piece with the material selected for the two Billy Bragg/Wilco Mermaid Avenue projects in that neither lyric sounds like anything you can imagine Woody Guthrie writing. Burch describes them as "just insanely moving." Standout tracks are an alternate take of Bennett's "My Darlin,'" written with Burch seven or eight years ago and recorded on Wilco's Summerteeth, and "Shakin' Sugar," a Tweedy co-write that's a perfect-pitch rendering of that mood wherein loneliness becomes indistinguishable from boredom.

The track with the most exciting promise, though, is the most Bennett-Burch. "Talk to Me" is loaded with pop charm and charged with the relaxed energy of great things to come. Says Burch, "I'm proud of 'Talk to Me,' because that's probably the one where Jay and I worked most closely together on creating the final product, and maybe also because it happens to be the newest song on the record. It got finished being composed and recorded just right before we went in to mix."

"Talk to Me," then, may mark a kind of segue to Bennett's future, launched from the ashes of Bennett's past. But before he leaves it behind, perhaps he deserves a last say on the enviably successful Yankee Hotel Foxtrot: "It's important to me for people to know that that album is my last album with Wilco, with complete and total full participation start to finish--my swan song with Wilco. And I'm proud of it."

Meanwhile, looking even farther back, Undertow is working on a re-release of Titanic Love Affair material in 2003.

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