"Sky Blue Sky" (Nonesuch)
* * * 1/2
WHEN Wilco signed up Nels Cline as its guitarist a few years ago, it looked as if the sky was the limit. Wilco's ability to bend its folk and rock roots with adventurous experimentation had already made it one of the most admired bands in American music, and in Los Angeles-based Cline they added a musician known for fiercely inventive avant-jazz explorations, as well as more grounded work with rock bands such as Bloc and the Geraldine Fibbers.
Now here's Wilco's first studio album with Cline (as well as newly recruited multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone), and wouldn't you know it? "Sky Blue Sky" (in stores Tuesday) is the most musically direct and down to earth of the band's six-album career. Which underscores two things: Cline is as valuable for his taste as for his pyrotechnics, and Wilco indisputably remains Jeff Tweedy's band.
The focus is firmly on the singer-songwriter, who immediately sets the album's reflective, philosophical tone on the lilting, folkish "Either Way." With his slightly ragged, everyman voice out front, he goes on to consider the comfort and the difficulty of being together and being apart.
Tweedy and his five bandmates expand on the songs' folk and soul-music basics with ensemble playing that's both spontaneous and meticulous. Even if he is a team player here, Cline has frequent moments of exquisite guitar work, with elegiac leads of liquid purity and agitated interaction with Tweedy's and/or Sansone's guitar that recall the transcendent architecture of the '70s band Television.
All that helps compensate for a diminished level of mystery that sometimes leaves the album a little prosaic. Wilco might be down to earth, but we don't want them to be entirely of the earth.
-- Richard Cromelin
Redneck woman on cruise control
"One of the Boys"
(Sony BMG Nashville)
* * 1/2
WHEN Wilson stormed the country scene three years and two albums ago, she arrived as a redneck woman primed for the party. She's still a rowdy mama on much of her third album (in stores Tuesday) but now seems more interested in exploring her gentler side.
It's a worthy ambition that, unfortunately, isn't executed with the consistently lively songwriting she showed in her previous two efforts. Rather than moving boldly forward, she ends up holding her ground.
The title song, "The Girl That I Am," and her duet with Big & Rich's John Rich, "Come to Bed" (written by Rich and Vicky McGehee) make it clear that Wilson's not limited to the sharply defined image she created of a butt-kickin' champion of blue-collar life. But none of them brings thoroughly engaging displays of song craft.
There are worse crimes being committed in country these days; still, you want a writer of her obvious skill to do more with language as she (with help from Rich and McGehee) does in "There Goes the Neighborhood," "Pain Killer" (co-written by Dean Hall) and the closing ballad "To Tell You the Truth," which deftly turns that phrase into a double-edged sword.
She doesn't want to be considered just one of the boys; she shouldn't settle for being just one of the crowd either.
-- Randy Lewis
Haunting end to 2nd posthumous release
"Ruff Draft" (Stonesthrow)
* * *
RUFF DRAFT is J Dilla's (a.k.a. Jay Dee's) third album following his untimely death 13 months ago, but despite appearing posthumously, it's also a re-release. Originally recorded in a lightning one-week session in 2003, "Ruff Draft" was originally released only in Europe. For its proper U.S. release, it comes with more than a dozen previously unreleased instrumentals and bonus tracks.
Recorded after he moved from Detroit to Los Angeles, "Ruff Draft" is a dramatic lunge away from the pillowy soul and jazz textures of Dilla's '90s work for the Pharcyde, A Tribe Called Quest, Janet Jackson and others. A chaotic spontaneity animates these collisions of ragged drums loops, static-crusted samples and vigorous synthesizer workouts. Accenting those jagged edges is Dilla's own punctuated flow and flinty baritone. In contrast to the guest-filled "The Shining," another posthumous Dilla album, released last fall, "Ruff Draft" is a rare solo affair that captures him in the midst of furious, creative burst and change in direction.
The album ends with an alternative mix of the track "Shouts." Over a bed of electronic chirps and quaking snares, Dilla acknowledges key friends, colleagues and family. It's difficult to shake the eerie sensation that his roll call now takes on the feel of a life-after-death valediction. There is, however, something reassuring that even if heard as a prescient farewell, "Shouts" should come at the end of an album brimming with a joie de vivre that erases any shadows of impending night.
-- Oliver Wang
Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.