May 24, 2004


Jay Bennett -- Bigger Than Blue.jpg

A singer-songwriter coming into his own

For those who know Jay Bennett from his stint as an unsung multi-instrumentalist in Wilco, his solo debut is both everything and nothing one might expect.

Bigger Than Blue (Undertow Music), the first of three planned releases by Bennett this year, is teeming with the folk- and pop-speckled song craft that made such inventive albums as Being There and Summerteeth alt-country classics, and made his former band one of the '90s most seminal acts. But the great revelation on this disc is that such a seasoned, credible singer-songwriter persona emerges.

Bennett had shown glimpses of his inner troubadour on a pair of recent releases with Edward Burch (The Palace at 4 a.m. Parts I and II). On Blue, it's as if the freedom of his first true solo project has allowed him to truly begin carving out his place as a compelling songsmith. Granted, there are some tracks that wouldn't sound out of place on a Wilco record. There's the mid-tempo rocker "It's Hard," featuring ex-band mates John Stirratt (bass) and Ken Coomer (drums); the ragged, organ-drenched "Reasons for You to Love Me (Cars Can't Escape)," co-written with Jeff Tweedy; and a majestic chorus on the poppy "Charming and Plastic." But Bennett sounds his best -- and most distinctive -- on the leaner arrangements that dot the disc.

His warm, rough-edged baritone adds to the homespun intimacy on the achy ballad "Outside Looking In," and helps drive home the sense of discord on the poignant "Songs That Weren't Finished," as he sings: "It can't tame the hunger/And you can't quench the thirst/The lies or the lyin'/You don't know which came first." There's plenty more sharp wit and clever wordplay in Bennett's writing (though perhaps it's a bit heavy on the metaphors), but at times this record is less about what he's saying than the conviction of his delivery. On the bittersweet acoustic ballad "Cajun Angel," he sounds so genuine in boasting that he's "danced in every juke joint around that Gulf of Mexico," it's a surprise -- and almost a letdown -- to find out it's actually a set of Woody Guthrie lyrics put to Bennett's music.

In the end, though, Bennett forges his own voice in his first solo foray. Lyrically and vocally, the material on Bigger Than Blue finds him weathered, vulnerable and sometimes downright broken. Creatively speaking, this disc shows that's not the case. The former ace sideman is still holding it all together, just not so quietly.

-- By George Henn

Posted by medleyville at May 24, 2004 02:46 PM