Loose Fur. The name implies it all, really — loose, freewheeling styles that somehow melodically converge. True to form, the members of this talented squad all bring their own personality and flair to the group: Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy readily contributes his soulful voice and the poignant strumming of his acoustic guitar; Glenn Kotche, also of Wilco, grounds Tweedy’s soft lyrics with hard-hitting percussion; multi-instrumentalist Jim O’Rourke, most famously of Sonic Youth in addition to his own acclaimed solo work, adds yearning vocals and pensive guitar in all the right spots.
Recorded during downtime from Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” the trio’s first side-project, “Loose Fur,” was released back in 2003. Although a solid album, it only strengthened what we knew of these musicians — Tweedy’s impeccable craft for songwriting, Kotche’s eccentric drum line and O’Rourke’s subtle production enhancements. Three years later, however, they are back with “Born Again in the USA.” This time, bound by delicate and sincerely crafted lyrics, earnest vocals and experimental guitar riffs, Loose Fur appears to have smoothed many of their cowlicks.
The songs comprising this sophomore effort have a wonderfully collective resilience about them, as they are clearly the result of the musicians’ interaction. Religion, as the album title subtly suggests, serves as the running theme throughout the album — not surprising from the men who penned and played such breathtakingly inquisitive numbers such as “Jesus, Etc.” and “Theologians.” At the same time, the band occasionally keeps their central motif on the back burner in several strained relationship-oriented ballads, a Tweedy and O’Rourke staple.
With its bouncy country groove and cheery whistling refrain, “The Ruling Class” takes a playfully ironic view of Jesus’ return to mainstream America. With lyrics such as “So son you better turn around/ Yeah Christ is on his way across town/ He was getting tired of hanging around/ Yeah he’s back Jack smoking crack find him if you want to get found,” the message is clear. On “Stupid as the Sun,” it’s now O’Rourke’s turn to sing Jesus’ chilling plea to be taken off of the cross before his eventual crucifixion; an unrelenting throbbing guitar only intensifies the singer’s impassioned chants.
Finally, “Thou Shalt Wilt” provides a sardonic commentary of the Ten Commandments and their sometimes irrational influence over people. O’Rourke quickly cites his disagreement with the fourth Commandment, keeping the Sabbath. For him, there’s no need to “desecrate [his] only day to sleep in late.” The lively melody masks a more pointed critique of when ethics are ironically discarded in the pursuit of morality. Like the album, the song is not an attack on religion, but rather on those who bend it to their will. Although Tweedy and O’Rourke sing with remarkable candor and eloquence, their shtick grows to be a bit tiresome by the end of the album.
The relationship songs on “Born Again” provide a nice break from the record’s wearisome theme. O’Rourke takes a soulful pause with the more sincere and melancholic “Answers to Your Questions.” On this track, a cautiously ebbing acoustic guitar is supplemented by an equally cyclic but still sonorously ethereal second guitar line. The simplicity of the song is achingly heart wrenching as he describes his separation from an ex. Though these emotions are viscerally personal, they momentarily escape and are transported through the painful plucking of his guitar. Similarly, on “Wanted,” the final track on the album, Tweedy sings of a stirring sexual experience over O’Rourke’s prancing piano chords.
“Born Again in the USA” is a strong release, although it pales in comparison to what these artists have accomplished on their day jobs. The disc does demonstrate, however, that the collective has learned to play better as a group, joining their respective written dexterity, percussive ingenuity and refined production. While the disc lacks any blatant missteps, the religious overtones grow exceedingly tedious by the end. Still, Loose Fur knows good music and, more importantly, how to make it. In that vein, “Born Again in the USA” is a sample of their ever-progressing craft and a taste of what’s to come.