Jay Bennett - The Magnificent Defeat
The seven or so years spent with Wilco saw Jay Bennett involved in their shift in direction from a respectable alt-country band to something all the more adventurous as their sonic experiments and sparseness unfurled. Before this transition was complete however, Jay left the band during the recording of Wilco's seminal album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot due to artist differences. Listening to The Magnificent Defeat you can see why.
As Wilco songs became more delicately arranged, the production more harsh and stripped back in places, Jay has gone in completely the opposite direction. This album is more akin to Wilco's Summerteeth than YHF. From the opening bars of Slow Beautifully Seconds Faster you're overcome with layers of music and production trickery, Jay's voice flitting from left to right, distorted and growling out his words and sounding eerily similar to Elvis Costello at his biting best.
The deep rooted problem with this album is that there's just too much going on. Where a song might benefit from something a little more sparsely arranged, Jay will inevitably throw layers upon layers of instrumentation and effects over it. Anyone who's seen the film I Am Trying To Break Your Heart about Wilco will remember one of the standout scenes as Jeff Tweedy and Jay discuss producing the sequencing of the album and how Jay is so into the structure that he loses sight of what should be important: the songs. That's not to say that he's a bad songwriter, the songs on here all show potential and an ear for a tune, it's just that they're hidden under everything else.
Out All Night is one of the simplest songs here, a routine country-rock number which sounds like it could have come from Being There-era Wilco, nothing too complicated and foot-tappingly good. Same can be said for Thank You, a beautifully arranged acoustic love song with slide guitar and Jay's voice delicately floating over the music instead of in your face and gruff. The problem with this record is exemplified by Phone Book, the very next track. Sounding like it could have come from Armed Forces-era Costello, its swirling organs and busy rhythm section is made worse by Jay's harsh voice growling over everything and spoils the atmosphere that's just been created. His vocals are just plain awful towards the end of it, just cracked and croaking too much to be listenable to.
At these moments he'd benefit from someone else just having a quiet word in his ear: concentrate on the songs and let the production and musicality of the tracks take care of themselves. If Jay had used as much energy on writing the songs as he had in producing and arranging them we'd have something truly special here.