By Mark Guarino
The acrimonious split between Wilco and Jay Bennett three years ago stirred up questions for fans that remain batted around today. As the band’s co-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and gonzo stage personality, Bennett was obviously more than just a dormant sideman to singer Jeff Tweedy yet there was little question Tweedy called the shots and was publicly considered the band auteur.
The smoke regarding who did what should clear somewhat this year when Wilco releases its first post-Bennett album in June. (Already, with bootlegs circulating, web chatter is mixed — detractors want their pop hooks back.) Having kept busy in his new role as a producer about town at Pieholden Suite Sound, his Chicago-based studio, Bennett is answering back with not one, but reportedly three albums of his own due this year.
“Bigger Than Blue” (Undertow), the first of the series, is in stores today. Unlike a previous collaboration with songwriter Edward Burch, “Blue” is strictly a one-man affair with occasional help from Bennett’s former Wilco bandmates and others.
Ranging from solo guitar introspection to full-blown psychedelic pop, the songs display Bennett’s deep range of studio expertise. There is little mistaking the wounded soul in these songs that best sound delivered through the more elaborate pop productions. Songs like “God’s Coffee” and “Cars Can’t Escape” (a “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” leftover) filter personal demons through carnival-rich absurdity. Their patches upon patches of drum loops, backwards guitar parts and overlapping vocals result in a crazy quilt catharsis that is weird, wonderful and hallucinatory.
Bennett’s charcoal voice does not have a wide range (a close comparison is Warren Zevon) but its rough stamp has a sobering effect on the solo acoustic songs, all last call laments with bittersweet warmth. “Cajun Angel” puts unused Woody Guthrie lyrics to music and its forlorn beauty rivals the best of Wilco’s “Mermaid Avenue” era.
Tunefulness and warmth emerge as the twin undercurrents of “Blue” from start to finish. Despite the caustic lyrics of “It’s Hard,” Bennett brandishes a guitar solo that is simple but assured. Former and current Wilco players Ken Coomer and John Stirratt cameo in places but even if you weren’t aware of Bennett’s back story, “Blue” would serve as an introduction to old school bedroom pop that sounds passionately created and personally lived.
Jay Bennett plays a CD release party for the new album May 1 at Schuba’s. Visit undertowmusic.com.