Being There

Leave it to Jeff Tweedy to take a rock-star notion as pretentious as the double-length concept album and reduce it to something about as nonchalant as a trip to the corner store for cigarettes. Tweedy was, after all, the less-affected of the two songwriters behind roots-rock architects Uncle Tupelo, his lighter perspective offering relief from partner Jay Farrar's heavy soul-searching. A.M. -- the 1994 debut from Tweedy's post-Tupelo band, Wilco -- wore its big, opportunistic heart on its sleeve. The key to that effort's easy charm lay in its apparent lack of ambition. A.M. didn't claim to be important; it was simple country-tinged rock grounded by equally simple intentions.

The new two-CD Being There, A.M.'s meandering follow-up, is the sound of Tweedy flipping his ambition on and off as if it were a light switch. Despite its 19-song, multi-stylistic sweep, Being There is oddly underwhelming, from its grainy snapshot cover art and cardboard packaging to the way the leisurely music takes sharp turns, leaving good ideas to languish unfinished. Being There's first disc is its most consistently rewarding; it's best, though, to ignore the dodgy clatter-pop opener "Misunderstood" and focus on the mildly agitated, Stones-ish house-rockers, the leery, weary rest-stop laments (i.e., tour bus songs) and the disarmingly tender love songs. Even better is "Red-Eyed and Blue," the sort of delicately brilliant gem Brian Wilson might have unearthed in his living room sandbox during his drug-addled Smile period had he worked with Gram Parsons.

Being There's second CD features another rather conspicuous Beach Boys homage, a hokey Pet Sounds treatment of "Outta Sight (Outta Mind)" with a Sesame Street piano intro. The tune shows up first on disc one as an ebullient rocker. Such playfulness, unfortunately, is in short supply on disc two, which buckles under the strain of too many watery, introspective ballads and shiftless melodies. Wilco finally shakes off its lethargy on the final track, the fiddle-fueled roadhouse lark, "Dreamer in My Dreams."

Being There hints at more potential than it realizes. It's as if two CDs weren't enough for Tweedy to have a go at everything on his "to do" list. And while disc one could have made for a strong sophomore release on its own, that doesn't mean the more erratic disc two deserves to stay in its dust sleeve. Indeed, passing over anything on Being There is like discounting a fascinating premonition of things to come, and a career's worth of promising beginnings. (***)

-- Hobart Rowland

Leah Andreone

High-minded intentions are not Leah Andreone's strong suit. Take, for example, the faux-funk exercise "Who Are They to Say" from the singer/songwriter's debut CD, Veiled. The hideous line "Jekyll shouldn't have to Hyde" aside, the main problem with the tune, and with much of Veiled, is that Andreone wants to come across as an expert on life but lacks the schooling to pull it off. Simply put, she's trying to sound older than she is.

Andreone is most convincing when alone with a decent, straightforward song and an acoustic guitar. Her singing is alternately sultry and shrill, but when she locks into her milky lower range and embraces a tune (as on "Mother Tongue" and "You Make Me Remember"), the results can be promising. Kate Bush and Tori Amos are common reference points applied to Andreone's vocals, but she may remind you most of Madonna recast as a Gen X folksinger. "Problem Child" in particular would be a perfect companion piece to the Material Girl's "Oh Father." And on "Come Sunday Morning," Andreone plays sorceress' apprentice with some pretty slinky sex-and-God wordplay. Even so, Andreone has a way to go before she earns a seat on the tough-chick bandwagon. (**)

-- Robin Myrick

Billy Breathes

The most frequent criticism leveled at Phish is that the 13-year-old four-piece is nothing more than a neo-Dead jam band. Pile 'em in a closet with Blues Traveler, Widespread Panic and Spin Doctors, and shut the damn door.

There's some reason for that dismissal, as can be heard on releases where Phish has played the losing game of trying to recreate in the studio its fabled live shows. But there are also plenty of reasons not to cast Phish aside, and Billy Breathes -- probably the quietest, least frantically virtuosic CD the band has made -- should be counted among them. Sure, there are jams here, but more common are slow, sitting-beneath-the-tree tunes such as "Waste," wherein guitarist Trey Anastasio sounds like he's been soaking too long in George Harrison's descending finger-picking pattern from "Blackbird."

All in all, Billy Breathes is more song than jam, and while that marks a clever departure for the group, it also highlights the weaknesses that accompany Phish's mostly instrumental strengths. What's always kept the band arm's length from pop radio (and long-term memory) is its hooks, or lack of same. What passes for hooks on Billy Breathes are just too plain clever (unexpected notes, queerly slanted progressions) to sink in the first time around. Another weakness is the lyrics, which continue to fail to offer any reason to pay attention. They're just kind of there.

But I never knew anyone who dug Phish for the words. Better to dig them for "Character Zer," a funky blues riff-in-a-void that transforms midtune into the kind of arms-to-the-sky earth-shaker that ought to translate just fine from studio to stadium, especially now that Phish isn't trying so hard to translate the other way around. (*** 1/2)

-- Brad Tyer

CDs are rated on a one to five star scale.

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Robin Myrick
Hobart Rowland
Brad Tyer