Jeff Tweedy and his son Spencer have released an album together with twenty new songs and keeping it in the family, a title referring to Mum’s nickname. Spencer Tweedy plays drums and Jeff handles vocals and a multitude of instruments bringing in Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig from Indie dahlings, Lucius on background vocals and Scott McCaughey from Minus 5 and Young Fresh Fellows’, sporadically on piano. (McCaughey has also collaborated with REM, Robyn Hitchcock and The Baseball Project).
We are all the result of our influences, and in music what we hear growing up shapes us for better or worse. I’ve read that Jeff Tweedy’s influences were Punk and Country but when I hear his music I always hear something more mysterious. The album is overflowing with interesting songs – and that’s the point with Tweedy, he has the knack of writing something simple and enticing. The songs are both heartfelt and compassionate, occasionally direct, but also carry a healthy ambiguity. They drift between lilting country vignettes and what seems like a traditional approach – but then suddenly it all switches to mad guitar ideas as if the band from the next studio got in and Tweedy, instead of responding indignantly just went with it, seeing the potential of a different influence.
But that’s the part that makes the album better than it might have been. It’s the mixture of mostly dry warm sounds, the unexpected approaches to the arrangements and the unfussy production that endears you to the record. I can’t quite make up my mind if Tweedy is feeling around in the dark or these are planned adventures? But it’s certainly skilful songwriting, slightly cryptic yet always capturing moods, the same kind of skills that Elliott Smith had.
It’s unpredictable, daring from the first track, Please Don’t Let Me Be So Understood, strange timing, challenging in its simplicity. Musically it’s brash at first but you clearly hear father and son as one, it’s very cool. Throughout there’s a grand musical battle where Tweedy manages to balance his dark and his light sides admirably, like he is the commander for both sides always knowing what his opposite will do.
The songs pour out of him, High Hello’s, lazy feel gets agitated, disparate, and it’s a musical chemistry, not just flesh and blood that pull off these sonic adventures and the drums most definitely contribute to how the band sounds – to what it feels like. World Away reminds me of Lennon’s, I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier, and it’s not as if there’s anything particularly Beatlesque about Tweedy the band or Tweedy the songwriter but perhaps the classics like Dylan are simply unavoidable influences, they are the benchmarks, the blueprints and it’s hard not to use them as guides. This refers to Spencer’s drumming too and I’d be surprised if he hasn’t listened to classic records but then teenagers seem to easily tap into modern rock history – who doesn’t, it’s all around us, my eldest daughter’s favourite band is The Who.
By the fourth track they are somewhere else altogether, Spencer shows us he is as mad as his Dad contributing ideas that make songs like the next one different. Diam0nd Light Part 1 at 6m.12s sounds more like CAN than Americana but that’s why this record is so great, they don’t stay between the flags.
Low Key is catchy and has that Nels Cline type flourish in the solo and one wonders who influenced who? The piano part propels the song forwards and although it sounds simple, odd musical impulses occur throughout.
It’s a pattern that continues throughout the album, Pigeons has some odd northern European folk vibe like it could almost be James Yorkston. It’s difficult not to comment on every song on the album for as each new track appears, something else interesting is happening, in the chords, in the melody, in the beat in the general mood – Slow Love’s ethereal outro takes you outside and Nobody Dies Anymore brings you right back inside to the cryptic warmth.
I’ll Sing It might be The Kinks or The Troggs or The Action or any sixties beat group with, guess what – yes, odd bits, almost Pyschedelic like say, Tomorrow, but not quite that blatantly sixties. One foot stays in reality but Tweedy brilliantly takes something clear and easy and turns it on its head.
I read that Tweedy wanted the album in two halves, two distinct separate parts (it’s a double album and double CD) – Flowering is where Part Two begins. It’s not a massive shift but a simple pause. (Tom Petty has also done this on one of his CD’s). Both Flowering and Desert Bell bring you softly into Part Two but it’s the next song Summer Noon that is the first second half stand out. Here’s the lyrics:
Summer noon I can always stay
To radiate what the cello can’t play
She spoke to me and provoked my band
And I broke in two in the heat of her hand
Like a lioness or a coyote
At a pink beating heart in the balcony
I followed the finger to the creature’s gate
In the hubbub where the pitiful congregate
I thought there was a note that I couldn’t hear
So I floated to the whisper up against my ear
Afterwards I found my face in the trash
Really at the core of it, it wasn’t so bad
Never leave your mother’s womb
Unless you want to see how hard a broken heart can swoon
This album has a dual personality, not just that of father and son but of restraint and abandon. Measured easy songs with edgy dynamics and soft meanderings with whispered vocals. Honey Combed’s reveries in an English meadow could have been on Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother and it’s hard to grasp the range on this album not because the scope is wide but because it’s all so subtle – both underplayed and brave. Tweedy is taking you everywhere, through so many doorways – he seems to know all the locals in all the fictional villages in the deep corners of his curiosity. He introduces you to the fascinating scenarios in his head, he shows you the catalogue of his imagination and invites you to come away with him, trust him, it will be mostly pleasant but you may be shaken out of your bed in the middle of the night with a mad idea that will sound completely plausible in the morning.
New Moon, Down From Above and Where My Love are where we happily let Tweedy caress us with his musings, we are just following him wherever he wants to go because we like him, we like his stories and how he tells them. There’s something Big Star Third about his casual manner that makes you feel comfortable with him, you demand nothing from him, satisfied with his unpretentious tinkerings, a creative mind with a guitar and a tape recorder, his son and a couple of friends for company – it’s a beautiful idea.
As the album draws to a close with three more songs, the first is Fake Fur Coat and I hear a sweet nod to folk music in the same way that Roy Harper might wax poetic about nature as a backdrop for the song’s protaganist.
Behold the drift of a distant sun
Cold as my own heart
Blind at the edge of no return
Every time I dare depart
I believe the myth may illuminate
An anchor in the dry weeds
At the end of July in a fake fur coat
Hoping that your heart still needs me
I concede there’s beauty in bubblegum
I’m rolling up my sleeves
To advertise the new freedom
I accept I can’t receive
Behold the gift of the distant sun
The canyons full of loose bones
The nettle and the brambles and the jack bitch boss
Thundering down from his throne
Hazel sounds like it was recorded inside a wooden barrel, inside a wooden tavern – in a wood. Instruments so dry you become parched. A picked blasé bass as the player orders a stout from the landlord whilst recording, slightly missing the odd note.