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THE BABE AND THE MULE
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YOUR TOP 20 FOLKLORE SEQUEL, WITH DABABY GROWTH AND A CASK
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Critics' Choice
WILCO & TAME IMPALA HIT THE BULL’S-EYE FROM OPPOSITE DIRECTIONS
7/20/15

By Bud Scoppa

It’s highly unusual—especially in this era of diminished expectations for rock fans—for two tour de force cutting-edge rock albums to appear nearly simultaneously, but that’s exactly what happened late last week.

First came the release Thursday at midnight ET of Tame Impala’s eagerly anticipated (in certain quarters) Currents (Modular/Interscope). An hour later, at midnight Chicago time, Wilco surprised Indie Nation with a grand gesture, giving away the brand new studio album Star Wars, on the eve of the band’s Friday headlining slot at the Pitchfork Festival.

Currents, which bears the telling credit “written, recorded and produced by Kevin Parker,” has some surprises of its own. It’s a jaw-dropping headphone album that at the same time contains the 29-year-old Parker’s hookiest songs—starting with “The Moment,” “’Cause I’m a Man” and “Eventually”—as well as his strongest, most forthright singing. What’s unexpected is his wholesale use of synthesizers.

The sonic wrinkle—massive, live-sounding bass and drums bringing a distinctly human rhythmic feel to his intricately manipulated electronic soundscapes—was deftly employed by Daft Punk on Random Access Memories—but here the synths are playing arena-rock guitar lines. (There are also actual guitars, despite the initial impression, but they’re hiding in plain sight, so to speak.)

Is Parker actually pulling off what Todd Rundgren has been trying to achieve with his electronic experiments in recent years? He’s cited Todd as an inspiration, and this record feels very much like Parker’s Something!/Anything!, with “Eventually” serving as its “Hello, It’s Me.” Indeed, the Philly-soul vibes are all over Currents (which could be subtitled …and Recurrents), most overtly in the closing cut, the languorous noir ballad “New Person, Same Mistakes.”

In his insightful Rolling Stone lead review of Currents, Joe Levy makes a valuable point. “Parker is perhaps the most prominent member of a class of young musicians that is creating some of today's most spectacularly catchy music by being backward-looking and forward-thinking at the same time,” Levy asserts. (A similar realization inspired my recent rundown of retro-futuristic 2015 LPs.)

That same description could be applied to the entire career of the 47-year-old Jeff Tweedy and his band; Tweedy’s guitar-shredding co-star Nels Cline is 59. Wilco’s discography is crammed with repurposed lifts from Tweedy’s impeccable record collection, and Star Wars is no exception, with its delightful evocations of Bob Dylan (“The Joke Explained”), The Velvet Underground (“Taste the Ceiling”), early Mott the Hoople (the roaring “You Satellite”) and, above all, The Beatles, most delectably on the glorious closer “Magnetized.” You might say, come to think of it, that Tweedy and Parker meet at John Lennon.

The current Wilco lineup, which has been stable for half of the band’s 20-year existence, is defined by heady interaction, which is what makes them such an electrifying live band (they’re headlining the Greek Aug. 5). But that same intensely lively musical conversation is what defines and powers Wilco’s studio albums, and Star Wars places this back-and-forth front-and-center throughout. The 11 tracks seem tossed-off at first listen, but there’s a breathtaking precision between the lines that becomes increasingly apparent with familiarity.

Very different kinds of reinvention characterize the teeming Star Wars and the hermetic Currents, but their basic impulses—perfectionism; restlessness; the desire to build on rock’s considerable legacy—are strikingly similar.

In his 9.3 rave review of Currents, Pitchfork’s Ian Cohen likens Parker’s transformative work to Radiohead’s Kid A and Wilco’s own Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which Tweedy created at a similar point in his artistic evolution. Wilco's latest transformation, meanwhile, though less dramatic than Tame Impala's, is just as rewarding: a great band progressively becoming that much more acutely itself.

And the beat definitively goes on.