This week I review a new compilation by Ben Folds and Wilco's newest release.
Wilco is just one of those bands that has been a critics' darling so long they really don't know how to make a bad album.
Led by the mercurial Jeff Tweedy, Wilco began as a collaborative effort but morphed over the years into basically a one-man-led operation with backup musicians. Tweedy is such a strong presence there's really no room for any other songwriters, and his track record of writing astonishingly creative material is an impenetrable defense to his occasionally jettisoning a band member or two.
While all of Wilco's recent releases have been at the least very good, it did seem as if Tweedy was backing off the ambitiousness of masterpieces such as 'Yankee Foxtrot Motel" and "A Ghost is Born," two albums that were experimental with lots of melody and grand hooks as good as anything the Beatles wrote.
In fact, you can hear echoes of the Fab Four in all of Wilco's work since "Summerteeth," released in the late 1990s, and that influence continues with "The Whole Love," with Tweedy's John Lennonesque voice loaded with pathos, irony and cool-as-cool drama.
On "The Whole Love," released in October, the band comes back hard with the experimental edginess of its earlier triumphs while still remaining true to the band's early country rock-influenced music.
The drama is back, and that's a good thing, as the band's wired full tilt for some extended, whacked and amusing jams, many of which whirl off into unexpected directions. For rock connoisseurs that have come to have nearly impossibly high standards for a band that's never known anything but mass critical success, "The Whole Love" doesn't disappoint. Wilco still is America's best band, and this album proves they can deliver the artiness along with delightful quirkiness when the band really wants to.
Ben Folds has had an unusual career in that he's mainly known as a 1990s craftsman of the monstrous and melancholy hit "Brick," a moving ballad about a girl having an abortion and the awkwardness and ambivalence that comes and goes with such a decision.
The fact the Ben Folds Five was able to sneak such serious fair onto pop radio was a testament to Folds' ability and way with a melody. Folds has played off his slightly-askew nerdiness to build a strong following captivated by his wonderful pop creations.
"Ben Folds: The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective," a three-CD package released by Sony Legacy in mid-October, takes all of the cream of Folds' fertile crop and adds few surprises along the way, with two additional CDs containing 40 previously unreleased and rare home demos, studio outtakes, alternate mixes, live tracks and three new tracks by Ben Folds Five.
A virtual dream for Folds' rabid and loyal fan base, the retrospective shows Folds growth as a songsmith from his earliest days penning more juvenile material to the substantive growth and maturity of his later work.
Although Folds manages to keep his goofy edges intact - there's no way around that - the retrospective makes a more-than-convincing argument that Folds' best work has gone unappreciated by the masses since his mid-1990s fame.
Still - when have the masses ever had sterling good taste in music? Right.
"Ben Folds: The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective" shows Folds best work may still lie ahead for a songwriter who needs to be taken seriously, despite his lopsided, what-me-worry persona.