Monday, November 13, 2006

Jay Bennett - The Magnificent Defeat

Jay Bennett is mostly famous for getting fired from Wilco by Jeff Tweedy in the documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. Bennett's off-camera firing provides a nice segue into the glorious third act of the film where, free of both Bennett and their former record label, Wilco can release Yankee Hotel Foxtrot -- hailed in the film as the most amazing album ever.

Of course, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is not the most amazing album ever, but it's pretty damn close.

And what differentiates Yankee Hotel Foxtrot from Wilco's less accessible (and, ultimately, less successful) followup is the pop influence of Jay Bennett.

On his own for his third album, The Magnificent Defeat, Jay is still playing the part of experimenting multi-instrumentalist. This means an album with a tremendous depth and breadth of sounds. From the first discordant look-I-can-still-sound-like-art-rock-Wilco track to the ditty stuffed near the end that sounds like an Irish drinking song, and all the 60's vocals and audio filters in between, Jay is playing with his sound. Like he's trying to show he can do anything.

But, of course, he can't. He does, however, have some core competencies and that leads to a couple of little gems on this album. Whenever his singing is more restrained and held back in his throat, like a guy who's reluctant to speak about such personal matters, the songs are more successful. "The Palace at 4 AM" (clearly, it's a concept he's obsessed with, as his first solo album was titled "The Palace at 4 AM, Part I") mixes his gravely murmuring with layered bubblegum elements, which somehow ends up being heartbreakingly appealing. Later "Survey the Damage" does more with the same vocal stylings and wailing guitars.

The rockers fall apart not in construction, but in Jay's voice. There's an insincerity that comes across.

But I like this album. It's interesting. Maybe it's interesting because I find Jay such an interesting character in the musical universe. He was there for Wilco's best album, but Jeff Tweedy gets all the credit. Back when the Palace at 4 AM Part I was released, Pitchfork wrote a review of it which was (much like this one) drenched with Wilco comparisons. It's hard to separate the two. The last line of that review touched on Wilco's formation, brought about when Tweedy and Jay Farrar broke up Uncle Tupelo with their differences:

Bennett's future may not be you-gotta-wear-shades bright, but we probably shouldn't write him off just yet. Keep in mind that nobody thought Tweedy was the talented Tupelo.
I believe Jay has a sublime album in him, yet. He just needs to focus on being Jay, not What-Jay-Could-Be. And maybe that's what makes Jay's music so interesting to me -- seeing if he can do it. Released: September 26, 2006. MULTI-INSTRUMENTALED.

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