Somewhere in the tumult and haze of Jerry Garcia’s death, obsessive fans gave up all hope of ever hearing “St. Stephen” again and subsequently began to find their way to Wilco. While that may not be true, it is uncannily similar how Dead fans would circulate meticulous set lists and bootleg tapes and now the same seems to be happening to Jeff Tweedy in all his incarnations. Tweedy fans are legion and incredibly devoted. Folks who tell a Tweedledee (I just made that up) that they have ‘every Wilco album’ are scoffed at directly. These are the people with every song by Uncle Tupelo, Golden Smog, the Minus Five, Loose Fur, and probably even the original Bill Fay album that contains the song “Be Not So Fearful” that Tweedy has covered. Fans even went so far as to practically permanently change a song’s title from “Laminated Cat” (as it appears on the first Loose Fur album) to “Not for the Season” (as it has been shouted out at shows ever since). To them, Tweedy is a folk-rock hero. A few years ago, he suffered some of his biggest ups and downs. A Ghost is Born was moderately successful, but received mixed critical reviews, becoming a bone of contention among even the most hardened fans. The first Loose Fur album was equally uneven. But, like the Second Coming (or the third or fourth), JT is back and better than ever with the sophomore album from him and compadres Jim O’Rourke and Glenn Kotche, Born Again in the U.S.A..
At first glance, this easy title send-up seemed somewhat trite and hackneyed, but upon listening to the music within, it was simply perfect. For one, particular songs express thoughts on modern (and not-so-modern religion) that are witty, biting and thought-provoking. Also, each song is distinctly American, and I don’t mean in a Toby Keith / Lee Greenwood, dumb blind sappy loyalty kind of way; I mean in the sense that this is American rock and roll like Otis Redding, the Allman Brothers and Boston are all diverse, but all distinctly American rock. O’Rourke, Tweedy and Kotche have seemingly found their comfort zones together, producing one of the finest efforts any of the artists have ever been involved with. In a way, Born Again is the perfect album. Each song is distinctly different from the next, and not just the differing Tweedy and O’Rourke vocals, yet the album as a whole remains cohesively thematic and enjoyable. This time around, the trio expands the selection from six to ten songs and notch up the quality at the same time. “Hey Chicken” kicks off the affair in a ’70s rock meets “On a Rope” fashion, with harmonic guitars that `take care of business.’ The chorus of “Hey chicken, you’re all talk,” shares that same ’70s machismo, but Tweedy’s tongue is firmly in cheek.
“The Ruling Class” is the song most Tweedledees have been waiting for as he has previewed it on his solo tour. Even though no one knew the song ahead of those shows, everyone came out knowing more of its lyrics than even some of his other standards. “So son you better turn around, Christ is on his way across town, he was getting tired of hangin’ around. Yeah, he’s back Jack, smokin’ crack, find him if you want to get found.” The whistling and guitar work all recall “The Dock of the Bay,” the former done so well live that one girl in Seattle exclaimed, “that’s amazing!” Between whistles Tweedy replied, “Thanks. (whistling) Yes it is.” “Answers to Your Questions” is O’Rourke’s first vocal turn, a slow and quiet track with subtle, beautiful guitar work and a similarity to the soft folk voice of Tom Rush. “Apostolic” is where Kotche gets to shine, and where the group really begins to resemble the Dead with freak out jams and intricate percussion work. It’s also another jab at religion where Tweedy says that part of the `apostolic life’ is `gettin’preachy.’
Because “The Ruling Class” is in the first half of the album, the last half might tend to be ignored, but the last six tracks are what make the record one of my favorites of the year. “Stupid as the Sun” is one of O’Rourke’s weird vocal highlights backed by stutter step harmonic guitars. “Pretty Sparks” features one of Tweedy’s catchiest sounding choruses if not a lyrically memorable one. “An Ecumenical Manner” continues the religion references in one of the most gorgeous sounding songs any of the group has composed. Kotche’s flourishes really stand out amongst prog-like guitars and pianos, sounding like a combination between Floyd and the Dead. While that might sound like a trainwreck, it is a glorious one. “Thou Shalt Wilt” is an absolute corker of a track, sounding like O’Rourke was commissioned to do a Schoolhouse Rock take on the Ten Commandments. Pulling out just one snippet of lyric wouldn’t do the song justice, take my word for it. “Wreckroom” is another Tweedy song that could easily end up as part of his solo sets, with muted AM rock guitars in the bridge a la Boston before it goes into a guitar freak out, then seesawing back and forth expertly between passages. THIS is freedom rock! Of course, Tweedy’s solo version will probably just cover the first two minutes or so rather than the near nine minutes on the album. “Wreckroom” could have easily closed the album in grand fashion, but they reserved that honor for “Wanted,” a jaunty tune with the kind of shocking opening line for which Tweedy is well known, “When I say she’s a rapist, that really isn’t what I mean.” More ’70s guitars highlight a spirited barroom piano and drum track in a song that lyrically matches some of the Wilco songs we all know and love.
Jeff Tweedy said during his solo show about new song, “Is That the Thanks I Get,” a song he wrote for Solomon Burke’s last album and was subsequently unused, that he was thankful because now it would be a Wilco song. The same can be said for the songs from side project Loose Fur, except that the songs on Born Again in the U.S.A. sound like anything but castoffs. This album is truly a meeting of artistic equals finding principal songwriters Tweedy and O’Rourke trading quality song for quality song, and Kotche adding such an incredible layer of depth and artistry that he is more than just “the drummer for Wilco.” Anyone who saw Kotche open for Tweedy on solo tour is well aware of that fact. It’s rare that a side project album can outshine most of an original band’s work, with maybe Postal Service standing as the biggest exception, but Born Again does just that, and also lifts up hope for Tweedledees everywhere that there is more yet to come in Golden Smog and Wilco albums due later this year. I’ll tell you what, though, this one’s going to be hard to beat.