Jay Bennett and Edward Burch

If ex-Wilco multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett's new album, The Palace at 4am (Part 1), is a challenge to the studio-borne alt-country he helped create on Wilco's new Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, well, Wilco wins. But if the disc, which Bennett made with friend and fellow songwriter Edward Burch, is any indication of the bells and whistles that might be missing from the next Wilco album (no matter how many Chicago hipsters Jeff Tweedy picks up along the way), Bennett might have the last laugh after all. The Palace is meticulously, lovingly arranged roots-pop, absolutely overflowing with tucked-away countermelodies and partially submerged textural elements that through a pair of headphones sound like revelations on a grand scale; "Talk to Me" alone goes from Motown shuffle to New Order throb to Replacements swing, with plenty of those little guitar curlicues Bennett always adorned Wilco songs with working their way to the shimmering surface.

In his partnership with Tweedy, Bennett had what seemed to be an ideal creative relationship, if not an ideal working one, for as sonically inventive as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is, it's a record that feels worth the trouble it went through primarily for Tweedy's songs, how deftly he can move from the effortless, throwaway glee of "Heavy Metal Drummer" to recondite allusions to autumn and burned-up American flags. In those songs Bennett had a canvas as expansive as any he could've liked, room to work similar to the Rufus Wainwright and Fiona Apple albums L.A. studio guru Jon Brion has produced in his singular style. Bennett and Burch, like Brion, simply don't muster that dynamism on their record, even if they used so many instruments they admit to not remembering them all in the liner notes. Still, it does feel good to have mavericks at alt-country's edges, pushing the form beyond its titanic historical antecedents and into some new territory where sound qua sound signifies something besides the stomping of the barbarians at the gate. Here's to the emperor finding new clothes and vice versa.

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Mikael Wood