Preferential Treatment: Wilco

In Preferential Treatment, I take a band’s full-length albums and list them from least favorite to most favorite, with a bit of justifying commentary. I welcome your comments, whether they be disagreements or complete non-sequiters. (!) denotes an album that I consider a classic.

SUMMARY:

YHF > BT  > Stth > SBS > tWL > MA(W) > AM > AGiB > Wta

THE STORY SO FAR:

You don’t need me to tell you about Wilco, but here’s the breakdown: trailblazing folk-punk band (Uncle Tupelo) breaks up, budding songwriter (Jeff Tweedy) starts own band, creates incredible double LP (Being There), veers towards the avant-garde, creates masterpiece (YHF), band nearly falls apart, forms new outfit that may be the greatest live band of the new millenium (Wilco 2.0, my term), and keeps making great, if not classic, albums.

THE TREATMENT:


Wilco (The Album): I’ve commented elsewhere that the band’s eponymous seventh album seems like it’s played too fast, and I think that has something to do with making it Wilco’s most forgettable long player. It’s not that the songs are bad by any means, it’s just that that perfect sense of gravitas that provides an extra dimension for almost every other Wilco record is absent, and the songs here just seem to breeze by with nary a flutter. It’s a fairly intangible complaint, but I’ve seen Wilco live three times in the last several years, and they haven’t played one of the tunes here. If that doesn’t speak to how they feel about this set, then I don’t know what would. ("Wilco (the song)", "Deeper Down")

A Ghost Is Born: After 3 great albums and the dismissal of co-songwriter Jay Bennett (who did his fair share to make BT, Summerteeth, and YHF what they were), the odds for a four-peat weren’t in Tweedy’s favor. Ghost is a typical Wilco album: on one hand experimental, exploratory, and open-ended, on the other hand brimming with melody and a poet’s wit. In my opinion, the production seems a little sterile, and nothing confirms this better than the excellent live album Kicking Television that was released a year or two later, when Tweedy had filled out Wilco 2.0’s lineup. Songs that sounded a bit flat here sound alive and filled-out in a live setting. Not a bad record, but it is the sound of a band in flux, without a strong sense of where it is going. ("Muzzle of Bees", "Wishful Thinking")

AM: There was a time that AM seemed utterly forgettable, especially next to YHF or Summerteeth. It was never a bad record, it was just straight-forward and easily labeled as "mediocre". Being There always seemed like the band’s first major statement anyway. But time has been and continues to be kind to AM. It’s got that mid-90’s alt sound going, a bit of a generic mesh in terms of production, but the songs are remarkably strong power-pop affairs at root. As Wilco 2.0 has welcomed more and more of these tunes back into their setlists as regulars, things have come full circle, and AM cuts seem every bit at home alongside classics like "Via Chicago" and "Jesus etc." Absolutely worth revisiting if it’s been a while. ("I Must Be High", "I Thought I Held You")

Mermaid Avenue I/II/III: The Mermaid Avenue albums weren’t entirely Wilco affairs, but there’s enough that’s strictly Wilco between the three albums that you can consider their efforts as a standalone affair. Bragg generally gets top billing with these because of the more explicitly blue collar nature of his previous work, but Tweedy and the boyz deserve plenty of credit for setting Guthrie’s lyrics and musical vision in a more contemporary setting. And who can deny the greatness of Tweedy led numbers like "California Stars", "One By One", "Secret of the Sea", and even the silly "Hoodoo Voodoo"? There’s plenty to love among Wilco’s tracks, which are generally pensive, dreamy Americana at its finest. ("Hesitating Beauty", "When the Roses Bloom Again")

The Whole Love: This one is another grower. Although supported by fantastic bookends, don’t discount the slowly unfolding goodness of tracks 2 thru 11. "I Might" has a nice post-punk edge to it, and "Dawned On Me" and "Born Alone" are both understated but celebratory cuts that highlight the best about Wilco 2.0. The closer, "Sunday Morning", is a sublimely understated shuffler, and perhaps one of the greatest alt-country/folk-rock compositions of all time. ("Art of Almost", "Sunday Morning")

Sky Blue Sky: The first album featuring Wilco in its current and longest-lasting manifestation, it’s a grower. Tweedy’s songs are a bit more simple this time around, but this might be the first album where he sounds truly comfortable in his own skin, and thanks especially to the crack ensemble of Wilco 2.0 the results reveal themselves more wonderfully with repeated listens. It’s a pretty great nuanced guitar album, with standout "Impossible Germany" paying homage to both Television and Steely Dan (which – yes – might just be the most Dad-rock combination of all time). ("You Are My Face", "Leave My Like You Found Me")

Summerteeth (!): A radioactive power-pop detour before the descent into experimentalism, Summerteeth is Wilco at its catchiest. "Shot In The Arm" has, I think, been played in just about every Wilco concert since the record was released, but it’s the languid, lyrically dense "Via Chicago" that seems to define the wonder of this record. It can be overwrought at times, but how can you argue when repeated listens reward you with the glories of cuts like "When You Wake Up Feeling Old"? Sweet and savory, great for late night driving. ("Summerteeth", "I’m Always In Love")

Being There (!): Being There is the album that opened doors for Wilco, and the record where Tweedy overtook Farrar in the great post-Tupelo race for artistic cred. It’s a truly beautiful experience, an epic of devotion to middle America suburbia and 70’s rock mythos, a dreamed-out and completely personal concept album. At times starry-eyed and sentimental, at others an abandoned hard rocker, it’s a lovable mess, everything a double-album should be. Experimental alt-country before YHF was even a glimmer in someone’s eye. ("Far Far Away", "Sunken Treasure")

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (!): Welcome to earth. This is the Wilco record that changed alt-country forever. It was the record that turned me on to Wilco, and it was the record that made them the "American Radiohead" (even if that term doesn’t really fit all that well). Sure, there’s an epic back story associated with this album, from the label troubles to the exit of Ken Coomer and Jay Bennett, and a host of outtakes available for free, but the real triumph is the songwriting, pure and simple. The bells and whistles are a big help, but this one plays like a greatest hits record unto itself. Classified somewhere between Kid A and Rumours. ("War On War", "Poor Places")

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Top Tracks 2011: In 80 Minutes or Less

I’ve given you 2011’s best albums. Now, behold, the year’s top tracks in 80 minutes or less, as selected by a distinguished panel of me.

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NB: For about half these artists, I would’ve chosen more than one track (esp. Fleet Foxes, Twin Sister, Dawes, Real Estate). So there are some pretty great tracks that didn’t make the cut.

"Chinatown" by Destroyer & "Stop" by Twin Sister: It’s difficult for me to separate these two out, because I love them for very similar reasons. Both feature dueling male/female vocals, romantic themes, 80’s soft-soul ambiance, and just the right touch of silliness and excess. This was the sound of 2011 in my book.  (“You can’t believe/The way the wind’s talking to the sea/I heard that someone said it before/I don’t care/I can’t walk away/I can’t walk away…”)

"Calgary" by Bon Iver: I’ve never been an admirer of Vernon’s vox, but "Calgary" comes off like the omega to Another Green World‘s alpha. It is quite possibly the most unusual song I heard last year, and also, quite possibly, the very best. Amazing video too.

"It’s Real" by Real Estate: Although I missed the wonderful nostalgic haze of Real Estate’s debut on 2011’s Days, the band’s second LP featured some flip-floppingly breezy garage-pop goodness. "It’s Real" is perhaps the best cut, a sing-along inducing nugget that makes the case for Real Estate being one of the best bands on the block.

"Bedouin Dress" by Fleet Foxes: "Innisfree" is apparently some sort of mythical paradise of Celtic lore, and after hearing Robin Pecknold’s joyful paean to the place, I’m inclined, in the words of Liz Lemon, to "want to go to there." A huge stylistic leap for an already great band, and they nail it. (“And I can’t/No I can’t get through/The borrower’s debt is the only regret of my youth…”)

"Us Against the World" by Coldplay: Chris Martin has to be one of the most under-appreciated songwriters in the world today. True, I’m sure the guy gets "appreciated" mighty well in the pounds-sterling department, but the point is the dude can write a freakin’ song. It’s that point where Martin’s voice ascends into the lyric mimetically that slays me: "If we could float away/Fly up to the surface and just start again/Lift off before trouble just erodes us in the rain…"

"Dear Avery" by The Decemberists: Ready to weep? Listen to this song, envision that bit about grabbing the child "by the knape of [the] neck", and then realize that Meloy wrote this song from the perspective of a parent sending their son off to war. Like "Tears of Rage" without the bitterness(?), this one just makes you want to sigh hallelujah. (“There are times life/Will rattle your bones and will bend your limbs/You’re still far away the boy you’ve ever been/So you bend back and shake at the frame/The frame you made/Don’t you shake alone/Please Avery, come home…”)

"Civilian" by Wye Oak: Last year I included Wye Oak’s "I Hope You Die" on my best tracks list. This year, I’ve included the driving, downtrodden rocker "Civilian", a tune that seems to owe quite a bit to Neil Young’s folk-rock period. Builds from a circular guitar figure into a storm of distorted catharsis, it’s a harrowing take on loneliness, and features great drumming. ("Perfectly able to hold my own hand/But I still can’t kiss my own neck")

"Hard Times" by Gillian Welch: It’s a simple little story of the wearing down of sincere promises, a ballad of poverty, will, and the inevitable. I wasn’t greatly impressed by Welch’s 5th released last year, but this ranks among her very best songs. Listen to those lyrics, and try not to cry. ("C’mon sweet ol’ girl/I bet the whole damn world/We’re gonna make it yet to the end of the road/Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind…”)

"Million Dollar Bill" by Dawes: It starts with that slow-tempo drumming that instantly calls to mind The Band, Big Pink-era, fronted by Richard Manuel. It would be unfair and simply stupid to draw all things Dawes back to The Band, but with "Million Dollar Bill", they offer up something that is unmistakeably a tribute to one of their biggest influences, showing that they are every bit as capable of Robertson’s brotherhood of creating "melt-your-face" Americana. ("When it hits me that she’s gone/I think I’ll run for president/And get my face put on the million dollar bill")

"Turn A Light On" by Kathryn Calder: Of all the tracks on 2011’s Bright And Vivid, "Turn A Light On" most recalls the pleasantly noisy pastoral beauty of Calder’s 2010 debut LP. It emphasizes all of the things that have quickly made her one of my favorite new artists – the airy acoustic strum, the angelic melodies, the gracefully crafted harmonies and dissonant flourishes – and fits in perfectly with the album’s overall theme. ("Throw the table/It began to waver/The wine is cloudy too/So I watch it go/You wonder if/When it’s almost gone/So what’s the use/If you missed it all/We’ll make the rounds/But what’s the use…")

"In My Eyes" by Givers: One of the band’s more "downbeat" tracks, "In My Eyes" is nevertheless still pretty bouncy and catchy and all that. But there’s more texture here, a narrative arc more dynamic than some of the band’s more prominent tunes. The breakdown at the end is one of the band’s best moments, showcasing all of their strengths. Love those voices, love that tropical post-punk sound.

"Supercollider" by Radiohead: 2011 was the full realization of Radiohead’s independent dream. They released not only their shortest album to date, but a couple of outstanding non-LP singles as well. "Supercollider" is the best of the lot, a tense builder that recalls the bleak tunefulness of In Rainbows, the icy synthscapes of Amnesiac, and the utter brilliance of Thom Yorke’s voice.

"Ring Them Bells" by Sarah Jarosz: Oh Mercy! How did this one ever get dropped from the pile o’ Dylan classics? , Thank Jarosz for digging it up. Her voice owns it, and the bluegrass accompaniment weds it with humble joy. (“Ring them bells ye heathen from the city that dreams/Ring them bells from the sanctuaries ‘cross the valleys and streams/For they’re deep and they’re wide/And the world’s on it’s side/And time is running backwards/And so is the bride…”)

"Days Like This" by Over the Rhine: The best cut on Over The Rhine’s latest wasn’t their own tune, but a composition by Kim Taylor. It’s the kind of simple song that lets the strongest of strengths shine forth for Linford and Karin…that voice, the moody instrumentation. Perfection. ("All I wanna do is live my life honestly…")

"Tree By The River" by Iron & Wine: An optimistic and warm address to Mary Ann. "All the thorns and the roses/Beneath your window panes…" A lovely peace of nostalgia.

"One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)" by Wilco: Gorgeous, epic, blissful, unsettling, final, hopeful, sad, wow. Holy blessings what an amazing song. Quite possibly the song that Wilco was destined to make. (“Outside I look lived in/Like the bones in a shrine/How am I forgiven?/Oh, I’ll give it time…”)

Top Albums 2011: Honorable Mention

I listened to somewhere in the neighborhood of 90-100 new albums in 2011. Here’s an armload of records that I really liked last year, but for whatever reason didn’t make my Top 5.

  • Givers – In Light: Really enjoyable, very promising, though maybe a little too dense and overly vocalized. It goes like this: in each song, Givers reach a sort of climactic groove, a swirl of rhythm and harmony, but through some process that I can’t explain the ascent to this point often seems hurried and a bit planned. I just want them to slow down and live in the moment. "In My Eyes" and "Atlantic" hit the right pace. I don’t mean to sound like an ingrate – this is a really enjoyable record. I’m glad this crew is on the scene, and can’t wait to see what they cook up for round 2. (original review)
  • My Morning Jacket – Circuital: Now here’s an album I was essentially wrong about. JJ’s (or are we calling him YY?) game here is to divorce himself from the irony that has become so closely linked with rock and roll that folks have apparently forgotten how to have silly fun. What results seems a bit too emotionally direct at first, but at the heart of this album is a vision that isn’t afraid to make something beautiful out of simply feeling wonderful. Sure, it’s not a high concept, but try to find a more beautiful tune than "Movin’ Away" among last year’s bunch. (original review)
  • Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues: Hands down, a great follow-up to their brilliant debut, one that pushes them beyond any previous laurels. After a nearly perfect first half, the record flags a bit in the middle and toward the end, mostly due to the fact that the first four songs (and then the title track) transcend space, time, and human emotion, and it’s almost not humanly possible to stay consistent with something so great. Hard to fault an album for that, but it’s also hard to come down from that kind of high and keep interest. (original review)
  • Real Estate – Days: Real Estate’s debut was one of my favorite of 2009, and I really expected this to make my top 5 without a doubt. While there are a handful of outstanding breezy garage pop cuts, the band unfortunately departs from one of the things that made their first album so great: that layer of sonic ointment that smudged everything to the point of uncertainty. There was a impressionistic magic to the first LP, the sense of looking at old, grainy home video footage and feeling like "that was the past, when things were better." Days is simply a more immediate record, and while some of the tunes are better than those on the debut, overall it’s not the cohesive artistic statement that its predecessor was. (original review)
  • Sarah Jarosz – Follow Me Down: I don’t know why Sarah Jarosz was a big deal a few years back – I never really listened to her debut LP – but what I hear with this offering is a strong set of tunes, from gorgeous originals ("Run Away", "My Muse") to choice covers (Dylan’s "Ring Them Bells", Radiohead’s "The Tourist"). It’s not going to blow any minds with a concept – it’s basically just a gal and her pals making beautiful music – but weirdly enough that’s part of the magic of this LP.  (original review)
  • Death Cab For Cutie – Codes & Keys: "Eno" and "Another Green World" were buzz terms that preceded this record, and the influence of the experimental overlord’s escapist masterpiece is easily discernible from the opener "Home Is A Fire" to the middle passage of "Unobstructed Views."  But really, this is just another Death Cab record, no sharp left turn, no mid-career creative revolution,  just business as usual with a few new influences thrown in for good measure. Nothing wrong with that, and one finds that the songs and the production hit all the right notes. It may not be the latter-day crown jewel we are still expecting Death Cab to make, but it’s a highly enjoyable record in its own right, and maybe the best of their major label efforts, with enough multi-dimensionality to keep you coming back for more. (original review)
  • Laura Veirs – Tumble Bee: I’ve heard bits of her work in the past, but this, her children’s album, is the first full album I’ve listened to from Laura Veirs. It’s impressive, and while I’d argue that it’s more of a "kids music for grown-ups" album than a straight-up kids album (trust me – I’m a father), I’d also say that the fact that it’s marketed as a kids album makes it far more accessible than it might otherwise be. Let’s not haggle with labels though. Simply put, Tumble Bee is a memorable effort because it’s a well performed, well produced collection of choice tunes. Light with humor, heavy with whimsy. Gives the world what it needs, a little more music and a little more melody. (original review)
  • Wilco – The Whole Love: Not a great album unfortunately, but The Whole Love deserves mention because of 3 important highlights. First, there was the pre-release single "I Might", which was essentially Wilco reminding us that they are freakin’ Wilco, and that they can blow our minds with great pop tracks at will. The next was "The Art of Almost", this album’s opener, and Wilco’s reminder to us that they are the American Radiohead (when they choose to be). And then there’s the closer, the epic "One Sunday Morning", which is basically Wilco reminding us that they can operate outside the box and move us to tears at will. Those three highlights are enough to make this a worthy album, even if it’s not great, or even one of Wilco’s best. (original review)
  • Over the Rhine – The Long Surrender: Like a couple of bands on this list, Over The Rhine are automatically at a disadvantage because I am such a fan that I have extremely high expectations for any new work from them. And while The Long Surrender may not be my favorite album from the duo, it’s nevertheless a promising and enjoyable next step forward. Maybe it has something to do with the hand of producer Joe Henry (what the hell is wrong with me, yes, I know), maybe I got the slight sense that their tunes were becoming a bit too musicious (new word!), but for whatever reason The Long Surrender didn’t grab me like some of their past efforts. However, the album is still a first-rate listen, and there’s plenty to love about it, especially dark and intimate cuts like "The Sharpest Blade", "Oh Yeah By The Way", and the stunning, Kim Taylor-penned "Days Like This." (original review)

Initial Reactions (2012): Mermaid Avenue III, M. Ward, Sara Watkins

Initial Reactions are just that: my reactions to records after only a few listens (usually 2 or 3). I try to be fair, but if a record doesn’t make much of an initial impression on me, someone’s going to need to tell me to pay closer attention if they think it deserves better. (see the sidebar for rating descriptions)

Billy Bragg/Wilco – Mermaid Avenue III [B]: One last round for old times’ sake. Though not as great as the first, it beats the second for sure. The Tweedy-led tracks are real treats, reminiscent of the YHF demos. A few cuts could’ve used more work; otherwise, a delicious slice of dessert from one of the most fruitful experiments in rock and roll history. ("When the Roses Bloom Again", "Listening to the Wind That Blows")

M. Ward – Wasteland Companion [B+]: That distinctive voice inhabiting simple acoustic songs. Folk-ish with experimental tinges, i.e. the creepy howls of a desolate landscape in the title track, putting the emphasis on Ward’s mellow side. All in all, a strong record, one I’ll keep in rotation, and who knows what insights a few more spins might bring. Invites you to wander cautiously through the desolation.  ("The First Time I Ran Away", "A Wasteland Companion")

Sara Watkins – Sun Midnight Sun [A]: Well here’s a surprise. The opener’s distorted, hyperkinetic fiddling signals a musical shift, and gorgeous tunes get dressed up to launch this into ‘A’ territory. The centerpiece is the harrowing kiss-off "When It Pleases You.” Intense, beautiful, edgy, gorgeous, imaginative, interesting, and a major leap forward for a promising artist. In short, it’s everything I love about music. ("When It Pleases You", "Lock and Key")

Quick Review (LP): Mermaid Avenue II by Wilco (+ Billy Bragg)

Wilco (+ Billy Bragg)
Mermaid Avenue II
Elektra; 2000

My Rating: C (54/100)

Best Tracks: "Airline to Heaven", "Secret of the Sea", "Remember the Mountain Bed", "Aginst th’ Law", "I Was Born"

TRACK NOTES

"Airline to Heaven" (4.5/5)

  • Love the hoedown rhythm.
  • The direction this tune takes is pretty genius. Sounds like it could’ve been an Uncle Tupelo cut.

"My Flying Saucer" (4/5)

  • Cute n’ catchy.

"Feed of Man" (3.5/5)

  • Sort of menacing, but ultimately forgettable.
  • Tweedy should stick to the pretty stuff.

"Hot Rod Hotel" (3.5/5)

  • Woody’s lyrics are pretty great, but musically this is below average.

"I Was Born" (4/5)

  • Another cutey.
  • I was never a 10,000 Maniacs fan, but Natalie Merchant’s super-pure voice really works well with Woody’s lyrics and BB’s tunes.

"Secret of the Sea" (5/5)

  • LOVE this one.
  • Power pop brilliance. (Must be Jay B’s tune
  • "Who can guess the secret of the sea/If you can guess the secret of my love for you/Then we both could know/The secret of the sea…"

"Stetson Kennedy" (3/5)

  • Meh…
  • Sort of sounds like something I’d hear in the background on Bourbon Street.

"Remember the Mountain Bed" (5/5)

  • While Bragg gets the upper hand in terms of authenticity, Tweedy wins in terms of gorgeous melodies. Witness this.
  • Reminds me of the lovelorn nostalgia of "One by One.
  • Great lyrics here.

"Blood of the Lamb" (3/5)

  • Shoots for significance, hits on dull.

"Aginst th’ Law" (4.5/5)

  • Yessir, it is.
  • Why Winston-Salem?
  • Catchy as heck. Fun. Great performance by Corey Harris.

"All You Fascists" (3/5)

  • Yeah, Woody didn’t like Fascists either.
  • Exceedingly average.

"Joe Dimaggio’s Done It Again" (3.5/5)

  • I know it’s Woody’s work and all, but this sounds a bit out of place coming from Tweedy.

"Meanest Man" (3.5/5)

  • Instrumentally compelling.
  • Vocally, decent.
  • In terms of the songwriting, blah.

"Black Wind Blowing" (4/5)

  • Haunting.
  • Picture listening to this one while a storm is rolling in on the prairie.

"Someday Some Morning Sometime" (3.5/5)

  • Feels like it could have been a bit more…

ALBUM NOTES

  • Well, they saved most of the winners for the first volume. "Secret of the Sea" is essentially perfect, a Wilco power-pop wonder. Otherwise, there’s not a whole lot that detonates.
  • I wonder if they’ve ever given thought to continuing this series?
  • There’s a good documentary about the recording sessions called Man In The Sand. You can watch it on Netflix instant (or, you know, buy it or something).
  • Now that Wilco’s done this for two albums, it would be interesting to hear Jay Farrar/Son Volt give it a shot. After all, JF has always seemed to exude the blue collar heart.

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (4/5)
Concept (4/5)
Consequence (3.5/5)
Consistency (2.5/5)
Songs (3.83/5)

Quick Review (LP): Mermaid Avenue I by Wilco (+ Billy Bragg)

Wilco (+ Billy Bragg)
Mermaid Avenue I
Elektra; 1998

My Rating: A- (82/100)

Best Tracks: “Walt Whitman’s Niece”, “California Stars”, “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key”, “Birds and Ships”, “At My Window Sad and Lonely”, “Hesitating Beauty”

Waking the dead: questionable alt-country concept goes right.

TRACK NOTES

"Walt Whitman’s Niece" (4.5/5)

  • Raucous and joyful.
  • Love the bar room sing a long.
  • “Last night or the night before that/I’ll not say which night…”

"California Stars" (5/5)

  • Classic.
  • Brilliant.
  • You can just hear Woody’s soul coming through in the lyrics here.
  • Always thought the lyrics had a sarcastic edge to them though.
  • By the way, newbies, this is alt-country. Now go lay down in an open field on a clear summer night and take in the cosmos.

"Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key" (5/5)

  • So beautiful.
  • Natalie Merchant’s vocals are key here.
  • Great fiddle work.

"Birds and Ships" (5/5)

  • This is just one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard.
  • Nobody could’ve done it like Natalie.

"Hoodoo Voodoo" (4.5/5)

  • I’m pretty sure this is the riff from "Lady Madonna." But that’s OK. This tune still rules.
  • So goofy, so fun.
  • Great performance by the band. It’s all about the cowbell.

"She Came Along To Me" (4/5)

  • "The women are equal/And they may be ahead of the men"
  • Nice slide riff.
  • Pretty cool tune, though it could’ve used a stronger hook.

"At My Window Sad and Lonely" (4.5/5)

  • Another gorgeous tear-jerker.
  • You can hear a lot of Bennett’s influence on this one.

"Ingrid Bergman" (3.5/5)

  • Woody think Ingrid Bergman pretty.
  • WG missed his calling as a copywriter for Viagra.

"Christ for President" (2/5)

  • Dumb.
  • Stupid.
  • Er, worthless.
  • All of the above.

"I Guess I Planted" (3.5/5)

  • Forgettable.
  • Still, there’s sort of a swagger, and a bit of catchy melody.

"One By One" (5/5)

  • Another beautiful track with Tweedy at the front.
  • Really wondrous. This is a "soul shining" type of track. Just gorgeous.

"Eisler on the Go" (4.5/5)

  • The Eisler story is here.
  • Good Bragg track. 
  • Very evocative. The tune matches the lyrics well. A bit despondent.

"Hesitating Beauty" (4.5/5)

  • Great lyrics, great tune.
  • I love this one. Classic Wilco.

"Another Man’s Done Gone" (4.5/5)

  • Grand piano and Tweedy go really well together. See "Venus Stopped the Train" or "Cars Can’t Escape." He should do it more often.
  • Doesn’t sound like a Guthrie tune here, but I ain’t complaining.
  • Muy bueno.

"The Unwelcome Guest" (4.5/5)

  • The boys ride off into the sunset on this one. Nice touch.

ALBUM NOTES

  • Well, this isn’t exactly a Wilco album, since Billy Bragg composed about half of the tunes, and the lyrics are all the doing of Woody Guthrie. What would Wilco be, however, without classics like "California Stars", "At My Window Sad and Lonely", and "One By One" in their repertoire? There is plenty of essential Wilco here, and quite honestly, this album as a whole is simply wonderful.
  • In terms of consequence, Mermaid Avenue wins on 2 levels. First of all, it cemented Wilco as alt-country heroes following Being There just in time for them to start getting all experimental. Second of all, it confirmed the continuity of the non-Nashville country sound with old school Americana.
  • All in all, it’s not perfect, but it’s excellent. If they’d trimmed some of the fat here and added a few of the choice cuts from Volume 2 ("Airline to Heaven", "Secret of the Sea") they might have had a masterpiece. Still, I’m not complaining one bit.

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (4.5/5)
Concept (5/5)
Consequence (5/5)
Consistency (4.5/5)
Songs (4.3/5)

Quick Review (LP): The Whole Love by Wilco

Wilco
The Whole Love
dBPM; 2011

My Rating: B (66/100)

Best Tracks: "Art of Almost", "I Might", "Black Moon", "Born Alone", "One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)"

Wilco almost makes another great record.

TRACK NOTES

"Art of Almost" (4.5/5)

  • Probably their most obtuse cut since A Ghost Is Born, maybe even Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
  • Cool song, though unfortunately it’s not quite brilliant. Extra points for really trying though.
  • Also, as the opener, it doesn’t quite portend the overall sound of the record, which is really pretty conventional.

"I Might" (4.5/5)

  • Very nice poppy cut.
  • The organ reminds me of Elvis Costello’s early sound.
  • This is their best pure single since "Jesus, etc."

"Sunloathe" (4/5)

  • Reminds me of a Summerteeth rarity.
  • "Pieholden Suite", that’s what it reminds me of. It has that same vibe.
  • Very midwestern sound. The meandering piano work could’ve been sampled from "Dream On" or something.

"Dawned On Me" (3.5/5)

  • Hey, remember "You Never Know?"
  • OK, for someone who is such a completely off-kilter lyricist, I’m surprised at the fact that a cliché forms the basis for this song.
  • Nice performance otherwise.

"Black Moon" (4/5)

  • Smooth and mellow.
  • This actually sort of reminds me of their debut, but in a good way.
  • OK, as the somber tune of the bunch, me likey.

"Born Alone" (4.5/5)

  • Almost twee at first.
  • And then big ol’ distorted section blares in…
  • Brilliant lyrics. And I love the way the riff dissolves in dissonance at the end of each repetition.

"Open Mind" (4/5)

  • Hey, (it’s almost) alt-country!!!
  • This one’s swell and all. It’s sort of just a song…
  • Tweedy can write the pretty melodies, that’s fer sure.

"Capitol City" (3.5/5)

  • First we had a little Elvis Costello, now we’ve got a little P. Mac.
  • Tweedy said this one goes back to the Being There sessions. That’s a long time to sit on a track.
  • Fits right in with "Yellow Submarine", "Octopus’ Garden", etc.

"Standing O" (4/5)

  • Now this one REALLY emulates Elvis Costello.

"Rising Red Lung" (4/5)

  • Hushed.
  • The instrumentation reminds me a bit of Allman Brothers.

"Whole Love" (4/5)

  • Just what does this "Whole Love" look like?
  • I don’t know, but Jeff really wants to show it to us.

"One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)" (5/5)

  • Dear Wilco, More like this please. Love, Your Fans.
  • Seriously, this is the kind of thing that makes Wilco great.
  • This is their best closer, hands down, and probably in their top 10 cuts.

ALBUM NOTES

  • There are some brilliant moments here, and the album sports a great cover, but unfortunately I don’t think Wilco has hit their full potential with The Whole Love.
  • That being said, "One Sunday Morning" is absolutely fantastic. Probably one of the best tracks from anyone this year.
  • Wilco has, for the last 7 years, been perhaps the best live band anywhere. I wish they would let themselves go a bit on the epic, cosmically scoped rock Americana that they are so capable of. I think this version of the band has a Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in them somewhere, and I don’t think they’ve made it yet. Tweedy may be just a bit too self-satisfied at this point. Perhaps a little divine discontent is in order?
  • Still, all in all, The Whole Love will certainly keep me coming back for more Wilco. While it may not be their best yet (it’s definitely a step up from their last LP), it’s a solid record, and one I expect to listen to quite a bit more in the coming months.

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (4/5)
Concept (4.5/5)
Consequence (4/5)
Consistency (3.5/5)
Songs (4.1/5)

Quick Review (LP): Wilco (the ablum) by Wilco

Wilco
Wilco (the album)
Nonesuch; 2009

My Rating: C+ (56/100)

Best Tracks: "Wilco (the song)", "Deeper Down", "You and I", "You Never Know", "I’ll Fight"

Apparently, this is Wilco.

TRACK NOTES

"Wilco (the song)"

  • Groovy riff.
  • "Put on your headphones/Before you exploh-oh-oh-oh-ode"
  • This one will put a smile on your face, as long as you don’t take it too seriously.

"Deeper Down"

  • Love the start/stop thing here.
  • Very creative tune. Understated, but highly enjoyable.
  • A great intricate guitar tune. It’s not "Impossible Germany", but it rides that wave.

"One Wing"

  • Good tune.
  • However, I feel like it could have been a bit beefier. Feels too featherweight.
  • It’s also too fast. SLOW DOWN!!!

"Bull Black Nova"

  • Reminiscent of "Spiders (Kidsmoke)", but a bit more traditional in structure.
  • Also reminiscent of "Impossible Germany", especially the breakdown in the middle.
  • The lyrics remind me of Poe’s "The Tell-Tale Heart."
  • Honestly, I’m not really sure whether I like this tune or not. I want to, but something feels a bit off about it.

"You and I"

  • Pretty n’ sweet.
  • Feist is enough to make any track enjoyable.
  • Sort of flutters by in an exceedingly pleasant way.

"You Never Know"

  • Gettin’ his George Harrison on.
  • Great single. Just a sunny, breezy power-pop tune.
  • Love those harmonies.

"Country Disappeared"

  • Another pretty tune.
  • "You’ve got the helicopters danglin’ to shoot you/The shots feed the angry news crew anchormen"
  • Pretty great lyrics on this one.

"Solitaire"

  • Nice slide work.
  • In the vein of tunes like "Please Be Patient With Me" and "Leave Me Like You Found Me."

"I’ll Fight"

  • The lyrics are comparing 2 people. It’s an interesting comparison. A song about the fortunate lives of some and the rough lives of others.
  • This one’s acutally one of my favorites from the record.

"Sonny Feeling"

  • This is a song about a person "splitting in two."
  • Interesting lyrics. Some of the lyrics make me think of a "Jeremy" type character.
  • The pun in the title is just kinda silly though.

"Everlasting Everything"

  • I feel about this one the same way I feel about "One Wing." Not enough gravitas and it feels rushed.
  • Decent tune, but the recording could have been better, and the performance could have been a bit slower.

ALBUM NOTES

  • Lyrics take center stage here. This is Tweedy’s most singer-songwriter album.
  • Very understated. This record is almost a polar opposite to the band’s early catalog.
  • Tweedy’s songs are always good. This set is a bit ho-hum though.
  • Here’s my write-up from shortly after the album’s release.

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (4/5)
Concept (3/5)
Consequence (3.5/5)
Consistency (3.5/5)
Songs (4/5)

Quick Review (LP): Sky Blue Sky by Wilco

Wilco
Sky Blue Sky
Nonesuch; 2007

My Rating: A- (81/100)

Best Tracks: "You Are My Face", "Impossible Germany", "Side With The Seeds", "Please Be Patient With Me", "Leave Me (Like You Found Me)", "What Light"

Please be patient with this album.

TRACK NOTES

“Either Way”

  • Pretty. Love the strings.
  • "Maybe the sun will shine today…"
  • This one is more delicate than Wilco has perhaps ever been.

"You Are My Face"

  • Nice vocal harmonies.
  • Again, this one is delicate. A real change of pace going on.
  • The lyrics here are really interesting. Sonically, they are very musical in and of themselves. Some real verbal substance there as well though.

"Impossible Germany"

  • Amazing.
  • Television does soft rock. The tri-guitar interplay is fantastic.
  • This is what craftsmanship sounds like.
  • And what is the emotion here? Complicated.
  • Here’s my write-up of the track.

"Sky Blue Sky"

  • Tweedy sounds completely in tune with himself, comfortable in his own skin, maybe for the first time.
  • Hushed performance here. Reminds me a lot of the excellent "More Like The Moon" track.
  • "With a sky blue sky/This rotten time/Wouldn’t seem so bad to me now/Oh if I didn’t die/I should be satisfied I survived/It’s good enough for now."

"Side With The Seeds"

  • I wasn’t so sure about this one at first, but it has really grown on me.
  • This may be the liveliest track on the record.
  • Great guitar work from Nels Cline at the end.

"Shake It Off"

  • This one is a bit awkward, but I think it is meant to be.
  • What I mean is, the rhythm is a little stilted, the guitars sound a little off and un-melodic.
  • But I think it’s Tweedy’s communication of a sort of cloudy emotional state.

"Please Be Patient With Me"

  • Gorgeous tune.
  • Not a drum to be found.
  • This one reminds me of The Beatles’ quieter stuff. "I’m Only Sleeping", "Yesterday", etc.

"Hate It Here"

  • This one kind of reminds me of Big Star.
  • I’ve heard this one is supposed to be from his wife’s point of view.
  • I can see how this one would drive people crazy, especially with the direct lyrical approach.
  • That being said, I think there’s more going on here than at first glance.

"Leave Me (Like You Found Me)"

  • What does that piano line remind me of?
  • This one is another gorgeous soft rocker.
  • Nice bass work by Stirratt.

"Walken"

  • Strange spelling – is this song about Christopher Walken? It is sort of dancey.
  • "The more I think about it/The more I know it’s true!"
  • Sort of a goofy tune, but pretty catchy too.
  • They definitely sound like they are having a lot of fun.

"What Light"

  • Nice singalong-er. Almost a sweet drinking song quality to this one.
  • Overall, very simple, but also very appealling. Not a great Wilco track, but a good one.

"On and On and On"

  • This one seems to be a forgotten cut, but it’s really good.
  • Again, mellow, but packs a hefty emotional punch.
  • Nice way to end an album that has been a mix of light and dark.

ALBUM NOTES

  • Great cover image.
  • This album does very little to wow you. In my book, it’s all about the songwriting, the craftsmanship, the sort of patient consideration that requires a bit of thought about which note goes here, which lyric goes there, which instrument gets the emphasis on this or that passage, and how each track precisely fits together.
  • At the same time, there is an intuitive feeling to this album. It’s a bit paradoxical, but I get the sense that Tweedy loved this incarnation of the band and wanted to simply capture what they sounded like at that point in time.
  • One thing I love: there is this incredible 70’s classic rock vibe to the album. It’s really in Tweedy’s songwriting DNA. You can hear it in pretty much everything he does if you listen close enough.
  • All in all, after a 3 album experimental run, this is Wilco settling back into songwriting for songwriting’s sake. The results are frequently breathtaking.

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (5/5)
Concept (5/5)
Consequence (4/5)
Consistency (4/5)
Songs (4.5/5)