School Of The Flower kicks off with a cacophony that brings to mind the noodlings of free jazz impresarios the Chicago Art Ensemble. After a minute and a half it subsides to gentle folk reflections played out over hushed vocals and acoustic guitars with electric drones and muted feedback.
“St. Cloud” sounds like Thurston Moore ingesting a bathtub full of qualudes and deciding to bliss out for while, while other cuts like “Home” play like a Galaxy 500 7″ at 33 1/3. The rest comes off as a subdued collection of Nick Drake outtakes (what acoustic folk albums don’t these days?). Thing is, I mean all this in the best possible way. It’s a fantastic album with clever arrangements and a resolute approach that evokes placidity.
Sometimes AM seems so far away. He ascended into experimento land with 2000’s Summerteeth, and leveled off at Gestaltitutde with the acclaimed Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Ever since, erstwhile Uncle Tupelo bassist and insurgent country barnburner Jeff Tweedy set has had his spaced-out ship set to autopilot, the better to take big tokes off the avant-garde bong. While his solo performances still include dollops of downstate charm and some rollicking gems from AM and Being There, Tweedy is just as fond of losing himself in noisy bursts of stuttering, formless guitar that are more experimental than elemental. Loose Fur, his collaboration with the famously unconventional Jim O’Rourke, is another flagstone on Tweedy’s path to enlightenment. Unfortunately, he doesn’t leave many breadcrumbs for the nonbelievers to follow.
Neither an EP nor a full-length, Loose Fur’s self-titled release on the Chicago indie Drag City offers six compositions, including a YHF throwaway and nine minutes of unadulterated wanking. Tweedy and O’Rourke split vocal and lyrical duties roughly in half, while Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche remains mostly out of site. “Laminated Cat” draws on the same isolation metaphors and first-person musings that gave Yankee Hotel Foxtrot its slightly claustrophobic feel, while O’Rourke’s “Elegant Transaction” is a fluttering tribute to Nick Drake. Things don’t get really strange until “So Long,” the album’s set piece. With only a tenuous grip on a vague O’Rourke lyric (“Don’t look at me, you won’t find me there/Found a lodger for my face”), the three musicians seem to spend nine minutes stringing snippets of their no doubt fabulous record collections together. Snatches of guitar stop and start over Kotche’s percussion, which sounds like “shave and a haircut, two bits” deconstructed. It’s all very silly, and amounts to self-congratulating nonsense. But this is the sort of thing that “ah-tists” do, you see.
There’s nothing wrong with the avant-garde, or experimental approaches to music. A problem arises only when working within these structures becomes a license for performing music that communicates more between the musicians themselves than their audience. “So Long” might have been a wonderful experience for Loose Fur to perform in the studio, but it’s barely accessible to the listener. While the album’s other instrumental treads some similar ground, it’s rescued by repetition and organic instrumentation that suggests a campfire Stereolab. “Chinese Apple,” Loose Fur‘s final song, is a lovely marriage of English folk and American country balladry. It’s a pretty ending to a loopy, lilting, and mildly irritating release that’s wonderful as a document of musicianly communication, but opaque and a bit boring for the rest of us.