Monday, June 29, 2009

Review: Wilco- Wilco (The Album)

Rating: 7.5
Released: June 30, 2009

What's more unexpected than doing what's expected?

Which is to say that more than 14 years since this Chicago band released their debut, Wilco continues to defy expectations.

Their latest (peep the camel cover!) is as close to a career retrospective as you're going to get at this point in the group's career, capturing the arc of frontman Jeff Tweedy's ever-finicky muse.

From country rock (1995's A.M.) to heartland Sonic Youth-disciples (1996's Being There) to indie poppers (1999's Summerteeth) to would-be industry killers (2002's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot) to minimalist Krautrock (2002's A Ghost Is Born) and back again (2004's Sky Blue Sky), the only thing that's remained consistent about Tweedy's evolving songcraft is its quality.

I defy you to find a subpar record in Wilco's catalogue, other than its fledgling debut, and there's an argument to be made in defense of that LP as well.

2002's YHF is, by all accounts including the Salmon's, the band's high-water mark to date.

A near-perfect distillation of Radiohead-esque atmospherics with a beating country heart, YHF set the bar for post-Radiohead American acts, and it set it pretty high with 12 songs documenting a disintegrating relationship under the guise of a coming-and-going radio signal.

The band, ever cagey, has yet to make a sequel to YHF, opting instead for Crazy Horse guitar antics and spacey, country rock.

Seems at this point in their careers that Wilco, now a little older than most indie rockers, could take a deep breath and look back.

Enter Wilco (The Album).

The songs are as solid as ever, if not more subtle, revealing their charms over repeated listens.

"Deeper Down" isn't going to blow you away, but it's shifting soundscapes and straining pedal-steel overlay are as lovely as music gets. See the Peter Gabriel-era Genesis segue as a side of Wilco you've never seen.

The self-titled album opener and ethos-spouting "You Never Know" are the obvious singles, three-minute blasts of mid-tempo hoodie songs with certified grade-A choruses.

"Come on children, you're acting like children/every generation thinks it's the end of the world," the ever-ascerbic Tweedy sings at one moment, responding moments later with an "I don't care anymore" hook over Beatles-fuzz and harmonized slide guitars.

The real stars here are "Bull Black Nova" and "One Wing," the former a paranoid, chiming growler with a dank underbelly of purring guitar and the latter being the best Wilco power ballad you'll ever hear.

Recent addition Nels Cline remains a versatile gem, filling in Tweedy's most sparse moments with post-punk guitar heroics.

You get the sense that Cline, like refined genius Richard Thompson, could give you a searing guitar solo at any time, but he picks his spots.

His gentler moments - the eerie closing tones of "Everlasting" - are as effective as the harder tones of the aforementioned "Bull Black Nova."

Tweedy's none-too-precious vocals are as essential as ever, imparting a world-weary authenticity to even the biggest songs.

"I'll fight, I'll fight, I'll fight for you/I'll kill, I'll kill, I'll kill for you," Tweedy sings in the aptly-titled "I'll Fight."

In Tweedy's hands, it's an interesting, if not chilling, statement. Imagine those words sung by a silver-throated pop star and you can see the danger for overkill.

Not everything here hits the bulls-eye. The pretty Feist duet "You And I" sometimes strays dangerously close to schmaltz, and rocker "Sunny Feeling" feels oddly shallow after several listens.

But the road, much like the bumpy airplane flight of "Sunny Feeling," hasn't been easy for Wilco.

Members defected, sued Tweedy and then died. Tweedy faced and overcame a dependency on prescription painkillers. Record labels deemed them "unsellable" and dropped them.

But for all the storm clouds that once hovered around the band, the future seems awfully bright for this fantastic, potent giant of a band and its omnipresent leader Tweedy.

Float on, brother.

- SoR

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