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"