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The Haul 2010: Loose Fur's Loose Fur

5. Loose Fur – Loose Fur LP – Drag City, 2003 – $10 (RRRecords, 1/7)

Loose Fur's Loose Fur

Wilco isn’t mentioned much around these parts, mostly in passing like here, here, here, and here. Is it a grudge? A blood feud? Sadly not. Much like Radiohead, there’s a notable disconnect between my modest interest in the group and their overwhelming critical backing. I enjoy both OK Computer and Summerteeth, but neither album ranks among my absolute favorites. I find their respective turn-of-the-century postmodern epics, Kid A and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, to be intriguing and periodically rewarding, but not revelatory. In the face of 10.0s from Pitchfork, moderate appreciation is wildly contrarian.

Since then, my take on the bands’ respective releases has diverged. Viewing Amnesiac and The Ghost Is Born as extensions of their predecessors to varying degrees, both bands have gone back to basics with Hail to the Thief / In Rainbows and Sky Blue Sky / Wilco the Album, stripping away some of the postmodern artifice that fans and critics alike drooled over. This switch hasn’t done much to make me care more about Radiohead—attachment has always been the foremost issue with them, going back to my high school malaise with The Bends—but it’s helped with Wilco. Scoff if you must, but the clean, intersecting lines of Sky Blue Sky’s “Impossible Germany” appeal to me more than the structural tinkering of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.” Does that make Sky Blue Sky a better record than any of the three which preceded it? No, but there’s less baggage for me to worry about.

All of this Wilco discussion is crucial for how I approach Loose Fur, an album full of such baggage. Whereas most listeners would be stoked about how the combination of the Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and Glenn Kotche and producer / musician / muse Jim O’Rourke inspired the postmodern turn on their beloved Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, I’m wary. If anything, I’m more intrigued by how Loose Fur ties to O’Rourke’s superb Insignificance, which also features Tweedy and Kotche. Here’s the convoluted timeline for the three albums:

Summer 2000: Loose Fur is recorded.
Late 2000 to Early 2001: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is recorded. Jim O’Rourke is brought on to mix the album.
Summer 2001, presumably: Insignificance is recorded.
September 2001: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is leaked to the public.
November 2001: Insignificance is released.
April 2002: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is released.
January 2003: Loose Fur is released.

In retrospect, this roll-out makes sense, since O’Rourke’s solo album didn’t weigh on the potential impact of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but Loose Fur had the potential to lessen the impact of Glenn Kotche’s percussive tricks on YHF. It does, however, position Loose Fur as a bit of an afterthought in this process, which is unfair to an otherwise interesting record.

The first side of Loose Fur does its own gradual roll-out. Opener “Laminated Cat” is a weirded-out version of Wilco’s “Not for the Season,” a mellow Tweedy vocal melody that snowballs into a mammoth boogie riff for its extended outro. O’Rourke follows up with “Elegant Transaction,” a ’70s folk-pop ballad that could’ve fit on Insignificance with its delicate acoustic guitar melodies and O’Rourke’s usual acidic lyrics (“A connection all the same / Like urine loves cold slate”). “So Long” is the first song that distinctly Loose Fur. O’Rourke’s lyrics certainly fit in with his usual modus operandi—“If I said I love you, I was talking to myself”—but the scraggly guitar and clanging percussion is a noticeable step away from the steadfast listenability of Insignificance. Over its nine minutes, “So Long” eventually casts aside the stray threads for a traditional “La-da-da-da” outro with piano, acoustic guitar, standard drumming, and hints of that wonky guitar. Its best moments occur during the transition between these phases, when the traditionally beautiful acoustic guitar pushes through the skronk of the electric guitar.

Side B continues this give-and-take between Tweedy and O’Rourke’s day jobs and Loose Fur’s emergence, but lacks the same level of payoff. “You Were Wrong” is a lackadaisical Tweedy song that could be easily slotted in as a Wilco b-side if not for a touch of dissonance. “Impression Totale” is an inconsequential instrumental that segues from a folky introduction to a noisy guitar build-up. “Chinese Apple” is a Tweedy-sung track that hints at the spaciousness of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot midway through, but mostly sticks with its pretty folk melodies. It’s the highlight of his songs here, giving more leeway for O’Rourke’s affinities for ’70s AM pop.

It doesn’t surprise me that Pitchfork’s take on Loose Fur is essentially opposite to mine, in how they preferred the Tweedy material on side B to the O’Rourke-heavy A side. They also prefer Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to Insignificance, so the former album is their reference point, whereas the latter is mine. Casting aside the reference points for a minute, let’s take stock: there are two great O’Rourke songs, two solid Tweedy songs, and a couple of forgettable songs. I’ll live with that. Could Loose Fur have used an editor’s touch? Sure. Almost all of these songs run past five-and-a-half minutes, giving them a definite three-guys-jamming feel. It often feels more like a collection of cast-aside solo material than a merger of the minds. I’ll certainly check out their 2006 follow-up, Born Again in the USA, to see if those elements have been fixed, but if I happen to encounter a few more Insignificance outtakes, that’ll be fine, too.