Sunday, May 24, 2009

Jay Bennett, R.I.P.

It was with great sadness that moments ago I learned that Jay Bennett, formerly of Wilco, died today at the age of 45. Sadly, most people will end up remembering him as the "obnoxious" guy that Jeff Tweedy had to boot out of the band during the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot sessions in 2001, courtesy of the documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart. I'll remember him as a kind of mad pop genius, and I've always been of the opinion that Wilco went downhill after he was ousted from the band.

Bennett was an accomplished multi-instrumentalist, and he joined Wilco for their critically acclaimed 2nd album, Being There. But it was 1999's Summerteeth when Bennett really took over. Its swirling pop melodies and walls of sound were as much Bennett as they were Tweedy, and it stands as a pop masterpiece in my book (the lovely ballad "My Darling" was a Bennett composition, for one). And his stamp was all over the avant-garde sounds of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (he was sacked at the end of the recording sessions). I don't mean to belittle what Tweedy did on these albums, but without Bennett playing Lennon to his McCartney (or the other way around), neither of these discs would have been the classics they were. In 2002, Bennett teamed up with Edward Burch to release The Palace at 4AM, an overlooked gem that let him unleash his inner Jeff Lynne on a series of densely produced pop nuggets, the highlight of which is "Shakin' Sugar", an outtake from the YHF sessions also known as "Alone", and one of the best ELO songs Lynne (or Bleu in LEO) never wrote. Bennett wasn't the world's greatest singer, but he does a passable Elvis Costello on songs such as "Whispers and Screams" and "Puzzle Heart", while "Talk to Me" and "Drinking on Your Dime" are also standouts. His turn on another Wilco outtake, the aching ballad "Venus Stopped the Train", is also excellent. I can't find a Lala embed for it, but you can listen to it through Rhapsody here:

The Palace At 4am (Part 1) by Jay Bennett/Edward Burch

Bennett's solo career after Palace was kind of checkered. He released a couple of acoustic-based albums, which to me just weren't his metier. His 2007 release The Magnificent Defeat was a step back in the right direction, and he had a new album in the can before his death. Meanwhile, at least in my opinion, Wilco since he left has had a musically aimless and unfocused sound, and I haven't been much of a fan of A Ghost is Born or Sky Blue Sky, and what little I've heard of Wilco (The Album) isn't hearkening back to the glory days of turn-of-the-century Wilco. Meanwhile, Bennett in recent times has continued to come off as an unsympathetic character; his most recent stint in the news came from a lawsuit he filed against Tweedy regarding royalties from I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. But before anyone makes him out to be the 100% bad guy, remember that Tweedy has left quite a "body count" in his wake when it came to musical partnerships; aside from his acrimonious break with Jay Farrar in Uncle Tupelo, he's managed to purge everyone sans John Stirratt from the early days of Wilco, and until recently the band was a revolving door of supporting players.

Jay Bennett will be missed, but I'd already been missing him for years. Maybe in death he'll get the credit he was due in Wilco. Rest in peace, Jay.

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