Saturday, August 1, 2009

Wilco: Wilco (the album)

Call it Wilco week here at I Think It Has Something To Do With Oatmeal, as I'm bookending it with Jeff Tweedy and friends. Plus, I bet Christopher Lowell is a huge fan. Anyway, in my never ending quest for more content for all you lovely people, I'm going to start trying my hand at album reviews, both for new stuff and older gems I think everyone should hear. Stay tuned for the retro reviews, but this week I want to extoll the virtues of Wilco's latest effort. 

My love for this band should be pretty clear after my recent writeup of their show in Pomona, but I don't think I explained them well enough. Wilco has been around since 1995, and when they first showed up with their debut, A.M., they were labeled as "alt-country," which I suppose was a fair assessment. With their second effort, the two-disc Being There, they started dabbling in noise and sunny pop and classic rock, all mixed in with the twang, and every album since has seen them add new tricks to their repertoire: the even noisier and poppier Summerteeth; the experimental, sometimes weird, always good Yankee Hotel Foxtrot; the epic guitar rock of A Ghost is Born; and the best trick of all, Sky Blue Sky's laid back, almost adult contemporary feel that still managed to be one of their best, with killer hooks, unforgettable guitar solos and Tweedy's heartfelt vocals.

With a band that never sounds exactly the same record-to-record, waiting for this latest had me wondering what crazy little twist they would add to blow me away. The twist, as it turned out, was to make a confident, classic album that takes what they've learned from each of their previous recordings and turns it into perhaps the quintessential Wilco record. There isn't much to blow the listener away on first listen, though certainly the opening silly sincerity of "Wilco (the song)" gets into your brain, assuring you that whatever else may happen, Wilco (standing in for any music you love) will always be there, and "You Never Know" uses a love of George Harrison, some undeniable keys and a rollicking beat to endear itself. "Bull Black Nova" sounds like the son of A Ghost is Born's epic "Spiders (Kidsmoke)," with its slow-burning tension and constantly chiming guitar framing a story about a guy who's done something very bad: "Blood in the sink/blood in the trunk.../this can't be undone/can't be outrun." Overall though, the album is more of a grower than a shower, taking a mostly mellow approach to garnering your affections. In particular the second half is dominated by slower tracks, but "Country Disappeared" and "I'll Fight" are hardly filler.

I have seen complaints that they've wasted the considerable talents of lead guitarist Nels Cline--a virtuoso known for his improvisation and diversity of styles--by abandoning both the abundant guitar solos and noisy experimentation of recent albums. I don't see it that way, as both "Bull Black Nova" and "One Wing" have plenty of the latter, and he gets to flex his guitar god muscle on "You Never Know." What people seem to forget is that he and Tweedy are largely kindred spirits when it comes to guitar (they share lead duties when they play live) and even the band's most experimental album, guitar-wise, was A Ghost is Born, which Cline didn't have a hand in writing. And if backing off all that for one record can bring us the casual beauty of Tweedy's duet with Feist, "You and I," then I'm all for it.

In the end, what we have here is our best American band offering another batch of strong material, enjoying their most consistent lineup to date by playing to every one of their strengths. If that's what they're in the mood for this time around, I'm more than happy to soak it up until the next one.

Final Grade: B+

Recommended listening: "One Wing," "Bull Black Nova," "You and I," "You Never Know," "I'll Fight"


Shayne said...

Good review, but dude, can you please stop calling them the best American band? I don't know what that even means! Does that mean you like them more than Queens all of a sudden? Or are you just saying most people agree that they are the best right now?

Hatfield said...

Hmm, no, I still like Queens of the Stone Age more, as far as playing to my tastes (which run toward the hard rocking, as we both know). But as far as overall artistic credibility, including their musicianship, song-writing abilities, and Tweedy's lyrics, they're the best all-around thing going right now, and have the chance to appeal to the most people. If you can do that while still maintaining credibility, that's impressive.

Hmm, I smell subject of a future blog post here...

(h/t to Eugene and Rishi for first referring to them as the best American band)

Tom said...

"The chance to appeal to the most people" equals good? On the contrary, if there's anything I can point to that saps my enthusiasm of them, it's the bland smoothness, the extreme effort to be inoffensive. (the album) to me sounds like a watered-down version of the best of their older stuff, though I can't say I've had sufficient time with it yet. And, on your criteria for "best American band" (excepting the widespread-appeal part), my vote still goes to Built to Spill.

Hatfield said...

Nice to see you arguing with me here instead of via email, Mr. Solmer.

First, as much as I enjoy and respect Built to Spill, I disagree pretty strongly. They might make the list, but even past Wilco you have TV on the Radio, My Morning Jacket, and arguably bands like Pearl Jam and Nine Inch Nails. I acknowledge (loathe as I am to do it usually) that this has a lot to do with preference, so take issue with Wilco all you like. But I don't consider widespread appeal to be a dirty word; to me, it's impressive that a band can speak to so many people while being artistically relevant. Yes, I mean as far as critics go, but there has to be some kind of baseline if I'm going to make that claim, and that's the one I'm going with.

Your watered-down comment is one I've heard already, but it doesn't play that way for me, clearly. And "extreme effort to be inoffensive" suggests that they care what the labels, critics and even fans think enough to ignore their own artistic impulses, a claim the documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart shows to be false.

Tom said...

My Morning Jacket, really? Listen to their latest. They've got one trick, slow songs with really simple repeating guitar and lots of reverb on the vocals. And they're clearly out of ideas.

If Wilco achieves blandness without specific effort towards that goal, I'm not sure if that's better or worse.

TV on the Radio, that's a good band. Their newfound obsession with falsetto harmonies went a little too far. But I do like the use of ambient, persistent sounds, lots of impact when there's finally a change.

Pearl Jam, never quite my thing but you gotta give the man credit for taking on Ticketmaster. No other band as big ever did it, and they sure paid a price, completely vanished from the mainstream scene.

I do struggle to think of who else would be on that list. Can't count Pixies, doesn't count if you're a cover band of yourself. And there's a difference between a band and one egomaniac plus three people who need money.

At least we could probably agree on the best Canadian band, that guy whose name no longer matches his age. Eh?

Heard the new Mars Volta? Review?

Hatfield said...

One trick?! I won't even argue that, except to say that you should perhaps check out their entire catalogue. Touché on the Wilco comment, though I don't agree. TVOTR is fantastic, and impressive as hell, but they're still light on overall material, so for me they can't be there yet. They probably will if they stick around long enough. And I wouldn't count Pixies, since they only exist anymore to serve Black Francis' ego, as you say.

Also, I gave up on Mars Volta after Frances The Mute. I saw them at Detour last year, hoping they'd reinvigorate my interest...and they just wanked, and wanked, and wanked, until all cohesion of their songs was completely compromised. Even an old favorite, "Drunkship of Lanterns," was turned into a jam session so long that when they finally got back to the song proper I had forgotten they were playing it. I think it's time to bring back At The Drive-In.

Tom said...

Yeah, Mars Volta never quite fulfilled the promise of the first two demos they put out (Concertina and Roulette Dares).

Coincidentally, the only time I saw them was with the Pixies self-cover band, and it was also a wank-fest. It was as if they got to the point where, if the audience didn't like something, they just assumed the audience was too stupid or closed-minded. So, I'm lending some support to your appreciation of satisfying your listeners. Anyway, Pixies completely blew them out of the water. Last time I'll go to Irvine Meadows, though -- those jerks tack on a service charge at their own box office, just to make Ticketbastard more competitive.

I will say this for My Morning Jacket, their live album was really good. Like, better than the studio stuff. Which in general is very high praise for a band. They may not totally yank my crank but they are for real.

ATDI for me is like Nirvana (the band), the good stuff is great but there are a lot of skip-worthy tracks as well. Hard to believe it's already been ten years (ok, nine and a half) since I saw them...

Hatfield said...

That's what I was going to say, MMJ are a force live. Glad you agree.

I've written more in these comments than I did in some of my actual posts. Let's hear it for office jobs!