Artist’s Website: www.wilcoworld.net
America’s most influential rock band returns to form with a master class in the possibilities of modern popular music.
Chicago-based band Wilco has built a cottage industry out of confounding people’s expectations. Wilco was born out of the ashes of alt-country pioneers Uncle Tupelo in the mid-1990s. Principal songwriter Jeff Tweedy stuck with the alt-country script just long enough for Wilco’s 1995 debut album A.M., but he’s been throwing curveballs and knuckleballs at his rabid fanbase ever since.
The first foray into something weirder and exciting came with the 1996 release of twin album Being There. Across two discs, Tweedy and his band mates cross-pollinated the alt-country template with elements of power-pop, psychedelia, and even Stax-style soul music. Wilco amped up the power-pop angle with their 1999 album Summerteeth, which sounded something like an acid rock Beach Boys record with impeccable tunes. The fan base continued to grow with every gig and every album.
Much has been made of Wilco’s trials and tribulations during the making of their Yankee Hotel Foxtrot album. Finally released in 2002, YHF is a landmark American rock album. The band intentionally set out to make a record that deconstructed the conventions of modern rock & roll songs. Disagreements with their record label over the commercial viability of the recordings forever changed Wilco’s approach to the business. This tumultuous period convinced Tweedy that the only thing that mattered was making records that he was proud of – clueless A&R reps and tone-deaf record company suits could go screw themselves. To this day, Wilco works by the principle of trusting their instincts to make great records, and trusting that their fans will find them.
2004’s A Ghost Is Born explored the darker, more dissonant elements of YHF. The current incarnation of Wilco first came together on 2007’s Sky Blue Sky album. Nels Cline and Pat Sansone, having participated in previous Wilco tours, had their first chances to contribute to the studio recordings. Sky Blue Sky and the next album, 2009’s cheekily self-titled Wilco (The Album), were less experimental than previous works. While both albums have their moments of beauty, some fans were left wondering where the brash, risk-taking, genre-destroying band they had fallen in love with had gone.
They needn’t have worried.
Wilco’s first release on their own label, The Whole Love, is a master class in finding the perfect balance between classic songwriting and sonic experimentation. While Wilco still reportedly operates as a benevolent dictatorship with Tweedy at the helm, on The Whole Love the other band members are more prominent than ever. “I Might” is underpinned by Glenn Kotche’s stomping drums and John Stirratt’s flatulent bass, while Sansone has apparently found the ‘Elvis Costello & the Attractions circa 1978’ settings on his keyboard. The band sounds like they are having so much fun, you might not notice the splashes of noise and dissonance that give the track its magic X-factor.
“Sunloathe” comes across like a throwback to the Summerteeth era, with backing vocals and instrumentation that cherry-pick from The Beatles’ Rubber Soul and Revolver. “Dawned on Me” is a four-on-the-floor rocker in the grandest Wilco tradition. “Black Moon” and “Open Mind” sound like cousins to the kinds of songs Wilco contributed to the Mermaid Avenue collaborations with Billy Bragg on Woody Guthrie lyrics in the 1990s. Gorgeous acoustic and electric guitars play in perfect harmony with strings, pedal steel, and keyboards. Meanwhile, “Black Moon” and “Rising Red Lung” are the sort of wide-screen, four-minute epics that made fans pile on the Wilco bandwagon in the first place.
“Born Alone” is another mid-tempo rocker that would fit seamlessly on any Wilco record, but the presence of Cline’s unmistakably frantic guitar work establishes it as a recent addition to the canon. Stirratt’s bass lines and Kotche’s drums provide the rhythm that glues the various guitar tracks together into a glorious, unified whole. The Whole Love’s title track is similar in tempo but different in sonic structure, riding its own groove.
Meanwhile, “Standing O” is probably the most over-the-top rock-out-with-your-cock-out song that Wilco has recorded since A.M. and Being There. Crisp guitars and a fluid bass line are set off by yet more Costello keyboards. This song seems like a natural set-closer that will bring the house down on Wilco’s upcoming tour.
So far, so great. But what really sets The Whole Love apart from anything else released in 2011 are the two songs that bookend the album. The last track, “One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)” does indeed sound like the perfect song to cue up on your iPod the next morning after a particularly eventful Saturday night. Over twelve minutes of repeating guitar lines and Mikael Jorgensen’s piano motifs, Tweedy sings ten pitch-perfect, heartbreaking verses about the emotional distance between fathers and sons.
The first, and best, track on the album is “Art of Almost”. It’s here where the perfect balance of the recognizable and the experimental really pays off. The polyrhythms are mesmerizing and haunting, sounding like Memphis soul by way of Can and Kraftwerk. It’s a seven-minute spectacle of texture and melody and groove. Everything explodes in a glorious maelstrom of hair-trigger guitars and snappy snares, simultaneously celebrating and reinventing everything that rock ‘n’ roll has to offer. If Wilco doesn’t play this song on their upcoming tours, their fans will riot. “Art of Almost” should be a staple in the band’s repertoire for years to come.
Some journalists have tagged Wilco with the label “The American Radiohead”. Presumably they are referencing both bands’ obsessive attention to detail, experimental nature, and complete investment in making music for themselves and for their fans, regardless of commercial viability. Like Wilco, Radiohead has recently released a few reasonably well-received but ultimately unfulfilling records. In Rainbows and The King of Limbs certainly have their moments, but much like Sky Blue Sky or Wilco (The Album), they left their most vociferous fans wanting more. Wilco has thrown down the gauntlet with The Whole Love, especially with “Art of Almost”, seemingly daring Radiohead to recapture the modern-rock throne by releasing a masterpiece. We shall see how their cousins from across the sea choose to respond in 2012, but Thom Yorke’s crew have a very steep hill to climb.