Wilco's Sky Blue Sky divided a lot of people because it wasn't another experimental, Big Important Rock Album like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born were. Rather, it's an easy going, classic rock, 70s worshipping release, and once you get past what you expected it to be and enjoy it for what it is, Sky Blue Sky is actually every bit as good as Wilco's best. Still, it's not as if it came out of nowhere. In fact, if you have been paying attention to what Tweedy was doing outside of Wilco--or read between the lines of A Ghost Is Born's more immediate, catchy songs--you'd have been prepared for it.
I'm resisting the urge to say that Loose Fur's albums are like a preview of where Wilco is going, but their two releases make for an easy cause and effect relationship. Though not released until 2003, Loose Fur's first self titled album was recorded in 2000, during the recording process for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Comparing the two, you really get the sense that Loose Fur unblocked whatever problems Tweedy was having with Wilco. Though Loose Fur is more overtly experimental and at the same time not as consistent or excellent as Yankee, the sound of the two albums isn't that different. The same could be said for Born Again In The USA, which was released a year before Sky Blue Sky but approximates its 70s sound and classic rock just as equally.
By the time of this recording, Loose Fur's three members had a very familial working relationship--Jim O'Rourke had produced or worked on a couple Wilco albums while both Glen Kotche and Jeff Tweedy are in Wilco. Like its predecessor, Born Again In The USA isn't as good as the related Wilco album, but it has a low key, relaxed charm all its own. Guitars are the obvious centerpiece of this album and nearly every song has some outstanding playing on it. Tweedy and O'Rourke remind us both of their chops and their way with a song; though O'Rourke only sings two, it's nice to hear him again since he's spent most of this decade off the mic. Tweedy, meanwhile, reveals the playful side that's emerged lately both in his music and in his personality/stage presence. 'The Ruling Class' is a jaunty tune and sees him singing about a Christ-like figure (or maybe Christ himself, returned) shootin' smack and smokin' crack. And as usual I've got to give some token appreciation for the efforts of Kotche, always showing the difference between simply being a drummer and being a master musician/session musician, doing what he can to add to the music, never getting in the way. In fact, I'll go one step further and say that he is a deceptive drummer because what he's playing, despite filling the usual role of holding down the groove/rhythm of a song and keeping time, is much more complex and interesting than it initially seems.
If forced to pinpoint what exactly it is about this album that makes it merely above average, an interesting side project but not as good as Wilco's main stuff, I'd have to give two reasons. The first is 'Wreckroom.' While it is eight minutes of mostly interesting music, it doesn't quite gel with the rest of the album. In the same way that I like 'Less Than You Think' on A Ghost Is Born but rarely listen to it, 'Wreckroom's extended outro of swirling, pealing guitar space never works for me. The second reason is that, well, this is just a side project, ultimately. I don't want to insinuate that Tweedy saves up his 'A' game for Wilco because I like these songs a lot and he's not holding back. But due to the way these songs are played and what they are, they don't have the panache and punch that Wilco does. Loose Fur get by on a lot of charm and "we just did this because we enjoy playing together and it was fun" on Born Again In The USA. Anyway, when are side projects ever taken as seriously and loved as deeply as the main stuff?? It's pretty rare. Loose Fur was an album about risk taking and sonic discovery and though I do like it better than Born Again, that's a matter of personal taste. The two albums are trying for different things and succeed at them. On Born Again, they aren't trying to push themselves; it doesn't have the sense of experimentalism and searching that made Loose Fur so interesting and worth hearing. But, again, this isn't trying to be that. Just as Sky Blue Sky was a good old fashioned rock album at its heart, Born Again is a good old fashioned rock side project, where a few guys from other bands or what have you get together to hang out and play music together because they like each other.
Born Again In The USA may not have the freshness and historical importance that the first album did, but that doesn't diminish it in any way. It's a nice companion piece to Sky Blue Sky, at any rate, and an above average album in its own right. Since you'll come to this via one of the three people involved, there's little chance it will blow you away in the same way the main projects do, but it's still great music for fans.