Wilco's unexpected journey and women take on Mayday songs

Wilco's ninth studio album, Star Wars, is miles away from their alt-country roots

Sandy Lam sings Mayday's Eternal Summer. Jeff Tweedy (second from right) is the frontman of alt-rock band Wilco.
Sandy Lam sings Mayday's Eternal Summer. Jeff Tweedy (second from right) is the frontman of alt-rock band Wilco.PHOTO: DBPM
Sandy Lam sings Mayday's Eternal Summer. Jeff Tweedy (second from right) is the frontman of alt-rock band Wilco.
Sandy Lam sings Mayday's Eternal Summer.

4/5 stars

Last October, I was chilling out on a cruise along the Chicago River when two conical towers materialised in front of me. I gasped: "It's the Wilco album cover."

The rest of the tourists looked bemused, probably thinking I was nuts. The building was the Marina City mixed development on the north bank. It was featured on the cover for Wilco's 2002 album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which was ranked in 2012 by Rolling Stone as one of the 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time.

The music was, likewise, an intricate architectural contraption, weaving rock, country and experimental, with the album crowned by a critic as "Americana's Kid A", a reference to Radiohead's seminal 2000 record.

Five albums later and Wilco have done it again, producing another curio. Last Thursday, they released Star Wars, their ninth studio release, for free download at their official website

It's testament to the American band's shape-shifting reputation that one has no clue as to what the songs would sound like at all.

The title Star Wars is clearly a red herring - the album is not a slavish tribute to the sci-fi franchise. The artwork features, of all things, a fluffy Persian cat. The music? It's moons away from the band's alt-country roots.

The opening track EKG - named after the electrocardiogram which tracks one's heart activity - gives you heart palpitations. In 76 seconds, it goes through more peaks and dips than, say, Donald Trump's political faux pas in the past week. Riffs are gnarled, the drums truncated. Things die, things are revived.

The track More… lives up to its name. It fillips between beefy 1970s-styled prog-rock and 1990s industrial, a mash-up of melody and noise, as frontman Jeff Tweedy sings: "More than I have/More than I can give/More than I have/More than there is."

Random Name Generator feels loose yet precise. "I kinda like it when I make you cry every once in a while," the singer teases, as a motorised dance beat chugs along as the guitars squeal with sadomasochistic glee. A couple of slow-burners hint at existential dread. You Satellite starts off with a lonesome riff and ends in feverish squawl.

Taste The Ceiling hearkens back to his early struggle with substance abuse, as he purrs: "I was on the ceiling/And I swore it might be true. I could fight the feeling/But not quite as well as you," he confesses, over a familiar mid-tempo guitar jaunt, slowly pervaded by a slightly off-key electric riff. "Why do our disasters creep so slowly into view?" he asks heartbreakingly.

The tension between control and helplessness is especially acute in Where Do I Begin, where he addresses his wife who is battling cancer. "Why can't I say something to make you well?" he sings candidly, the pain barely contained, as the guitars ring and rasp in the background, allowing him some space for grief.

Then a sudden burst of psych-rock fireworks end the song. Clouds part, stars are out and there's a possibility of redemption, however wistful.

Mayday songs get the female touch

Various artists B'in Music International
3.5/5 stars

Popular Taiwanese band Mayday are right there in the title but you will not hear them sing on this concept album.

Instead, 10 diverse female music acts take on 10 of the all-male quintet's songs.

As the rockers have always worn their hearts on their sleeves in their music, that emotional directness is something that a singer can readily tap into, regardless of gender.

Indeed, the band members have written for many women singers as well, including balladeer Fish Leong, girl group S.H.E and power vocalist Jia Jia. Incidentally, all three appear here.

The results here are sometimes surprising, often moving, and offer some pithy lessons on how to record a cover.

One way to go is to venture as far from the original as possible. That is exactly what diva Sandy Lam, indie darling Waa Wei and veteran Kay Huang have done.

Eternal Summer is now a shimmering slice of indie electropop as Lam insists: "I won't turn, I won't turn, I won't turn, I won't turn." Mayday's portrait of headstrong and restless youth is now a declaration of womanly strength.

Blistering rocker Viva Love is completely unrecognisable as it is skittery and mysterious, with Wei's hushed vocals draped over it. Huang's The Yet Unbroken Part Of My Heart swings lightly and jazzily.

Alternatively, one could pare the arrangements to a minimum and let the beauty of the song shine through. In this case, it helps if one has the vocal chops to do the heavy lifting.

Prime exhibits include Qu Wanting's moving and heartfelt take on Life Has A Kind Of Certainty, Lala Hsu's quietly compelling reading of Suddenly Miss You So Much and Eve Ai's beguiling Like Smoke.

In the successful covers - G.E.M.'s power pop ballad rendition of You're Not Truly Happy and Jia Jia's gently heartbreaking I Don't Want You To Be Alone - the essence of Mayday remains even as the song becomes undeniably the singer's.

Regrettably, S.H.E's Jump comes across as perfunctory and Leong's Tenderness, ironically, feels blanched of emotion. Neither cover seems necessary.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 22, 2015, with the headline 'Mayday songs get the female touch Journey into the unexpected'. Print Edition | Subscribe