Master And Everyone

Jeff Tweedy and Will Oldham long ago abandoned the definitive reference point of traditional folk music. First with his many variations on the moniker Palace, then under his own name, and now as Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Oldham moved beyond hellish variations on bleak mountain songs and now uses acoustic guitar and piano to create the feeling of sitting on a lit porch staring into the dark woods, without necessarily aping the specific sounds. As for Tweedy, when he left Uncle Tupelo to form Wilco, he actively sought to shed the alt-country tag. With his band's most recent album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Tweedy, multi-instrumentalist inspiration Jay Bennett, and producer Jim O'Rourke stretched folk-rock past its breaking point, taking cold pleasure in the collapse. Tweedy and O'Rourke have re-teamed for the side project Loose Fur (with indie-rock session-man and current Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche), and their six-song, 40-minute debut is in many ways a more successful attempt at folk deconstruction than the praised-to-the-skies Foxtrot. The Wilco record sports superior songcraft, but Loose Fur is more relaxed and more overtly exploratory: With less pressure to get somewhere specific, the musicians travel farther afield, and encounter more striking scenery. Tweedy and O'Rourke trade off singing and songwriting chores, mumbling sketchy phrases to bide time until they launch into lengthy vamps, mounding plucked-and-keyed instruments on top of Kotche's steady, rolling percussion. Apart from the cacophonous first two-thirds of "So Long" and the abrasive guitar freakout at the end of the otherwise serene "Liquidation Totale," the Loose Fur tracks are surprisingly complex and beautiful, allowing the music to breathe. Loose Fur's Drag City labelmate Bonnie "Prince" Billy takes a more conventional approach on his new record, Master And Everyone. The album opener, "The Way," is a delicate acoustic ballad, enhanced by bass guitar, distant backing vocals, and traces of strings. The song makes a plea for love without marriage, and it possesses the quality of truthful whispers in the night; Oldham never raises his voice or his musical tone above a murmur. So it goes with the rest of Master And Everyone. Oldham evokes church hymns on "Ain't You Wealthy, Ain't You Wise?," campfire rounds on "Joy And Jubilee," monotone folk philosophizing on "Lessons From What's Poor," and country lamentation on "Hard Life," but he never pushes the pulse to the racing point. There's nothing aggressive or urgent about the record, and oddly, that works in its favor. The overall inertia obscures the specific meaning or genre constitution of any one track, leaving a sleepy, brooding impression. It's folk music as atmosphere.

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