Wilco

5

Wilco
Wilco (The Album)
Nonesuch
4 out of 5 stars

Wilco is an absolute anomaly.  Their reputation as “the cool band” has greatly overshadowed their actual album sales.  Wilco has somehow become that band that everyone says they love even though most don’t buy their albums.  Need proof?

Wilco’s bestselling album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, has sold just over 590,000 copies.  Basically they are hundreds of thousands of albums away from going platinum and are still able to pack some very large venues across the country, including their summer tour stop at Red Rocks on July 3.  This tour will hopefully feature selections from their upcoming, seventh studio effort, Wilco (The Album)—their best studio album in the post-Jay Bennett era.

After the commercial flop that was 2007’s Sky Blue Sky, Wilco took a different approach with Wilco (The Album).  They returned to the roots which bolstered the band’s reputation to begin with:  Good songwriting.  With vocalist and chief songwriter Jeff Tweedy harking back to the verse-chorus-verse-chorus formula that made Wilco a notable addition to the Alt Country genre in the late 1990s, Wilco (The Album) is a simply the best thing the band has done since the dismissal of Bennett in 2001.

My favorite Wilco albums were the string of three with multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett, including:  Being There, Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.  Bennett, who died in his sleep recently on May 24, 2009 from unknown causes (autopsy results are pending), was a creative juggernaut of an instrumentalist and arranger.  He influenced much of Wilco’s sonic experimentation and production quality.  When he was dismissed from the band in 2001 after the completion of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot due to ongoing rifts with Tweedy, I must admit I was saddened.

Following Bennett’s firing, Wilco released two lack-luster studio albums, 2004’s A Ghost Is Born and 2007’s Sky Blue Sky and also had some major lineup changes, as Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt are currently the only remaining original members.  The lineup changes did provide the band with a stronger, more precise live show which eventually led to Wilco’s fantastic double-disc live album Kicking Television: Live In Chicago, which could be considered a live greatest hits package.
Wilco (The Album) is an album that will grow on you.  Recorded in Neil Finn’s recording studio in Auckland, New Zealand the album has a very homogenous feel and the songs are to the point and direct—only one song is over 5-minutes in length.

Thankfully it lacks the sparseness and lack of vocal melody that was Sky Blue Sky.  Tweedy’s writing has finally returned to the pop sensibilities found on Summerteeth and the instrumental arrangements remind me of the experimentation found on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

The album opens with “Wilco (The Song)” and I must admit it was weird hearing “Wilco” sung in a song lyric.  The distorted churning of electric guitars however, only alludes to how great his song will be live.  “Deeper Down” with its start and go timing features a gorgeous pedal steel solo and fantastically intricate instrument arrangement.  Tweedy’s voice has never sounded better.  Recent live show staple “One Wing” is recorded beautifully and is one of my favorite tracks on the album.

The play between the Tweedy’s vocals and the drums in the long intro literally make the song.  Other album highlights include the duet between indie folk singer Feist and Tweedy on “You and I,” the 70s rocker “You Never Know” and the acoustic beauty of “Solitaire.”

Perhaps Wilco (The Album) will be the rebirth of a band vying to make great studio albums again.  I only hope they can make it out of their teenage years.

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5 Comments

  1. this reviewer is on crack!
    while i agree that jay bennett was a great talent, (how sad, i did not know that he passed) the work jeff tweedy and company have done since his departure from the band has been brilliant. nels cline is a guitar god! an extreamely soulful white dude! i must admit i am not familiar with “A Ghost is Born”. based on this guys review alone, i am going to run to the nearest CD shop to buy it. “Sky Blue Sky” in it’s “sparseness” is like getting tucked in by a beloved parent as a young child. while there are no groundbreaking innovations with regard to songwriting gimmicks or studio wizardry, there is a generous helping of tasteful musicianship (listening to one another, with lots of texture and tone for days!). whenever i listen to Sky Blue Sky i imagine myself in the control room where the album was recorded and ponder how warm it must have been in there with all of the vintage tube gear glowing, spreading warmth to the players and the music that would eventually make it onto a CD (an inferior digital medium).
    BTW – everyone made a big deal about Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. that album pretty much blows! it’s what happens when you’re too self indulgent and do way too many drugs. remember people… it’s not about masturbation or how weird you can make a record. it’s about making music!
    hello!!!???
    anyone else out there care to chime in?
    i’ve NEVER replied to this sort of thing before, but this reviewer has his head pretty far up his caboose. he shouldn’t turn people off to amazing music because he can’t appreciate a traditional sound that oozes austere elegance that harkens back to the glory days of music in a far away land called yesteryear. folks this is americana at it’s finest!

  2. Jonathan Keller on

    Mike, everyone has different tastes, but seriously, if you think “Sky Blue Sky” is a greater achievement than “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” I have nothing to add to your commentary. Thanks for harping in, but none of your criticism of the review even made a dent with me. Much like my review probably didn’t make a dent in your view either. Happy listening and enjoy listening to “Sky Blue Sky.” Wilco’s worst album. Cheers!

  3. upon reviewing the comments i wrote earlier, the personal should have been removed. i usually hesitate before hitting the send button. your comments got me fired up. it didn’t need to get personal. i apologize.

    clearly we both have strong opinions. mine is that musicians (myself included) fall pray to being cute or trying to impress with flashy self-centered riffs without serving the song. it’s really too bad! some of the things i like about music (the elements that actually make the music what it is) are the rests and breaks that lend excitement to an otherwise boring monotonous song that caters to simpletons who need a constant barrage to be reminded they are listening to “music”. think of swing, reagge, ska, bluegrass, cool poly-rythmic world music and so on. the rests, hesitations and syncopation of those genres, in large part make them engaging to listen to and make you want to dance and/or just shake your booty in place!
    i enjoy Wilco’s earlier more raw recordings (AM – Being There), done without a budget that could feed thousands of needy people in third world countries, or in our own country for that matter. that being said, i’m a huge fan of the incredible fidelity on Sky Blue Sky. i’d be hard pressed to come up with a finer example of incredible bass and drum tone. Phat! a spelling and expression i hate but use here for emphasis, doesn’t even begin to convey the visceral experience one gets when listening to this album at a lively volume on a worthy hi-fi.
    nels cline’s tone is absolutely intoxicating. tweedy’s is not too shabby either! most guitar players are compelled to spew forth an assault of too many notes that don’t integrate with the timbre or musical theme (“the head” in jazz parlance) on a given track. nels on the other hand is a master at building anticipation and writing a lead part that has a beginning middle and end. how many guitar solos can you say that about? it’s a lost art unless you’re listening to jazz. when i was coming up in the world, even “shredders” from the big hair bands of the 80’s had interesting solos that made a musical/sonic statement. jonathan, i would have to guess that you are a critic without the benefit of being a musician, or at the very least you have never gone on a tone quest. it’s a rite-of-passage that most of us go through. usually more than once. as we grow musically and as people, our tastes change.
    with regard to the music i listen to and play, as i get older and wiser, it becomes less about showing you how big mine is and more about what i can tastefully add to a song with my knowledge, experience and restraint. the “bull in the china shop” routine is tiresome and just breaks things. music is a team sport if you will. when playing music with your friends or at a really great live show there is an energy that can not be manufactured with noises and cute techno tricks. it comes from humans interacting and cooperating (LISTENING – which sometimes means you pause and give another the room to stretch out. it affords a band the opportunity to become greater than the sum of their individual parts).
    Rock On Jonathan!

  4. Jonathan Keller on

    Hey Mike, thanks for the words. I actually am a musician and I am a HUGE Wilco fan as well. Always loved their production value and love how they take Tweedy’s sparse songs and turn them into sonic masterpieces (this is why I thought Jay Bennett was such an integral piece to the band as he was responsible for most of their arrangements). I agree with you that “Sky Blue Sky” is a great sonic album. But hey, Steely Dan makes great sounding albums and I can’t stand any of them (we can save this for another discussion if you are a fan of theirs). “Sky Blue Sky” just didn’t deliver for me in regards to the songwriting. Tweddy’s witty lyrics, vocal melody were generally lost for me on that album. That is why I say it is their worst album–to me, it doesn’t have their strongest selection of songs. My main point about their new album is the strong songwriting is back and Tweedy is almost back to peak form (like on “Being There” or “Summer Teeth”). So nice to see after he got cleaned up and all. I value your opinion and appreciate the comments. I will put “Sky Blue Sky” on right now and give it another spin. Rock On bud!

    PS: Do you like the new album at least?

  5. Hey Jonathan,
    i appreciate the fact that you are at least willing to give Sky Blue Sky another spin. the very first song grabbed me. the guitar solo in the opening tune “Either Way” is masterfully crafted and executed by Nels. The next tune, “You Are My Face”, is a nice piece of writing. it doesn’t make the ground shake. while i do sometimes appreciate the cleverness in songwriting that you speak of, gimmicks, devices and glibness end up sounding trite and don’t stand the test of time for me. cute for a minute, but without any “legs”!
    “Side With The Seeds”?
    “Please Be Patient With Me”?
    great tunes that in my opinion will endure.

    “What Light”
    c’mon! you’ve got to be joking!
    great stuff. much like the simple but fantastic tunes written by all the dudes that influence us now. take Hank Williams. tunes don’t get anymore simple than that. nobody would dare say that he was not a great songwriter. he still looms large in the circles i hang with!

    in answer to your question, yes. i do like the new album. although the better songwriting you refer to, i believe panders to a less discerning audience and to that end is dumbed down for better record sales. if it was intentional, i would be very disappointed. Tweedy and company can do a lot better than that!
    Cheers,
    Mike

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