Jammin’ with Edward

Ex-Wilco axman emerges with new partner and a familiar sound.


Tractor Tavern, 789-3599, $8 adv. / $10 9 p.m. Thurs., May 23

ABOUT FIVE MINUTES into the conversation, something very strange happens to Jay Bennett. The erstwhile Wilco guitarist’s voice—a deep, craggy baritone—suddenly spirals about six octaves higher.

“Neeeeewww, neeew, neew, naaaa, naaa, neeeeew, waaaaaaa!”

After a couple confused moments, it becomes clear that Bennett is actually singing the guitar solo to Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.” Why is he engaged in such a seemingly odd demonstration? Ostensibly, to prove a point. Something about the ineffable power of a catchy melody, the importance of being tuneful.

“Their guitar solos were singable,” marvels Bennett, returning to his normal register. “Even the ridiculously long ones, you could remember and sing every note of ’em. I’m very much into that: capturing certain kinds of sounds and chord voicings, countermelodies, ascending and descending melodic parts—I love it. I love all that stuff.”

You’ll have to forgive Bennett if his enthusiasm seems a bit over-the-top. It’s just that he’s enjoying thinking, talking, and most of all playing music, more than he has in a long time.

It’s a feeling that had all but vanished during Bennett’s waning days in Wilco. Joining the fledgling roots-rock outfit after the release of their 1994 debut, A.M., it was Bennett who helped guide frontman Jeff Tweedy’s evolution from twang-pop na裂to increasingly adventurous sonic thinker. The results of their partnership—1996’s sprawling double-disc Being There, 1999’s moody opus Summerteeth, and this year’s much discussed avant-pop effort Yankee Hotel Foxtrot—had the critical establishment hailing the group as America’s answer to Radiohead.

Despite the success, it became apparent that Bennett’s professional, if not his personal, relationship with Tweedy had started to run its course. The end came after the tumultuous sessions that produced YHF and what Bennett describes as his effort to guide the album back into pop territory, while Tweedy was bent on forging further into the desultory and experimental direction the record ultimately took. Depending on whom you choose to believe, last fall Bennett either quit or was fired from the band.

Regardless of the circumstances, just hours after his exit from Wilco Bennett phoned up old friend and rock ‘n’ roll running buddy Edward Burch (a vet of the Kennett Brothers and Viper & His Orchestra). The pair had casually been making music since their days in the early-’80s Champaign, Ill., power-pop scene, cutting tracks whenever their competing schedules allowed. When a groggy Burch answered Bennett’s early morning call, he was faced with a single, simple question: Are you seriously into making some music?

The answer must’ve been a resounding yes, as the pair—simply billed as Bennett & Burch—have just released the first disc of a projected three-volume series titled The Palace at 4 a.m. (Part 1) on Chicago indie imprint Undertow.

A sundry 15-song collection that taps into the richly textured production aesthetic of Summerteeth, the album not only heralds the beginning of a new creative partnership for Bennett, but also confirms his reputation as a gifted architect of sound. (Not so coincidentally released on the same day as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Palace also offers an appealing alternative for those put off by the noisier aspects of Wilco’s latest.)

From the parping trumpets that color the album-opening “Puzzle Heart,” to the squalling synth ‘n’ strings of “Drinking on Your Dime,” to the organ swells that breeze through “California,” Palace offers a dizzying array of instrumentation.

“But a collection of instruments does not a record make,” warns Bennett, who, along with Burch, plays everything from pump organ to electric sitar on the disc. “Ideally, those instruments speak to you, and you try and speak back to them. And hopefully, something cool comes out of it.”

So far, that running conversation has yielded a clutch of finely crafted summer idylls, ruminations on romance, and eulogies for dead love affairs. Cuts like “Talk to Me” and “Whispers or Screams” are blessed with an intimacy that evokes the best of midperiod Kinks and Costello. Imagine the elegant watercolor feel of Something Else shot through with the home-front alienation of Imperial Bedroom.

Though a prolific writer—in addition to the Palace material, Bennett estimates he has some 150 other originals ready to record—Part 1 also includes a hodgepodge of older numbers. Among them are a pair of Tweedy/Bennett co-writes left off YHF, a couple lyrical holdovers from Wilco’s Woody Guthrie collaboration, and a revamped redux of “My Darling,” one of the Bennett-penned standouts from Summerteeth.

Splitting vocal duties, Bennett’s and Burch’s disparate tones make for an interesting bit of alchemy. Sweetening his sandpaper delivery, Bennett comes off like a bubblegum version of Dylan, while Burch’s resolutely Midwest croon carefully navigates the nuanced sentiments of the songs. When the pair share lead chores—as on the big-bottom ramble of “Shakin’ Sugar”—their voices combine for familiar effect, offering up a laconic precision that’s not unlike Tom Petty’s parched twang.

While Bennett & Burch have already been approached by a number of major labels, the former insists he’s in no rush to jump back into the big-time music-making fold.

“I’m not anti-anything, but I’m really loving the hands-on-ness of what we’re doing right now,” says Bennett. “The stuff that Ed and I play and do onstage is kind of what we would do in the basement, you know? One moment we’re backstage goofing around, and the next moment we’re onstage goofing around.”

But, one wonders, does this fun include Bennett stepping out to warble some of his favorite guitar solos?

“No, no, no,” he laughs, somewhat embarrassed. “That’s not part of the act just yet.”