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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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): Yankee Hotel Foxtrot by Wilco

Wilco
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
Nonesuch; 2002

My Rating: A (88/100)

Best Tracks: "I am trying to break your heart", "Kamera", "War On War", "Jesus, etc.", "I’m the Man Who Loves You", "Poor Places"

Cosmic American Music goes through the looking glass.

TRACK NOTES

  • "I am trying to break your heart"
    • This is what happens when you take a simple folk song, deconstruct it, and throw everything at it including the kitchen sink.
    • "I am an American aquarium drinker/I assassin down the avenue" – I’ve got no idea what that means, but I love the way it sounds.
    • It sounds so simple, but as Tweedy has aged, his brilliance has consisted partly in the simplicity of his songs.
  • "Kamera"
    • The song that is, to me, the definition of "Dad Rock" for the new generation.
    • Love the Steely Dan vibe.
    • Power through restraint. Love the sonic flourishes in this tune.
    • Also, it’s great how the "Tell them I’m lost" bit gets juxtaposed against the basic melody.
  • "Radio Cure"
    • This is THE deconstructed song of the record. If you listen to the original version (I believe it was called "Corduroy Cutoff Girl") it was much poppier.
    • "Distance has no way of making love understandable" is the central theme.
    • I’m not a big fan of this song. A bit of a distraction in my book.
    • Anyway, check out "Corduroy Cutoff Girl." It’s an interesting study in how a track can change in production.
  • "War On War"
    • Hot damn, this is one catchy tune.
    • This is the type of song that you hear for the first time and immediately want to hear more from where it came from. So great.
    • "You’re gonna lose/You have to lose/You have to learn how to die/If you wanna wanna stay alive"
    • It’s an entirely new take on Parsons’ Cosmic American Music.
  • "Jesus, etc."
    • Beautiful.
    • "You were right about the stars/Each one is a setting sun"
    • "Tall buildings shake/Voices escape singing sad sad songs/Tuned to chords/Strung down your cheeks/Bitter melodies/Turning your orbit around"
    • Those lyrics, coming on the heels of 9/11 (actually before), are spine-tingling in a prophetic sort of way. This was the song that year.
    • Easily one of the greatest pop songs ever.
  • "Ashes of American Flags"
    • Again, love the lyrics here.
    • "All my lies are always wishes/I know I would die if I could come back new"
    • That slightly distorted guitar riff that sort of flares in owns this tune and really holds it together.
  • "Heavy Metal Drummer"
    • Poppy, almost to the point of being asinine. Gotta admit, though, I dig it.
    • "I miss the innocence I’ve known/Playing KISS covers/Beautiful and stoned"
    • Bleepity bloopity bleep.
  • "I’m the Man Who Loves You"
    • Another amazingly catchy tune.
    • It feels like Tweedy is riding a wave through this record, lyrically and musically.
    • Bennett did his fair share here, didn’t he?
    • The horns at the end are key.
  • "Pot Kettle Black"
    • This one doesn’t get top billing, but it’s strong enough.
    • Similar feel to "Kamera."
    • Dig the guitar fills on this one.
  • "Poor Places"
    • This one’s a centerpiece. Fairly deconstructed, but comes out on the other end of that process even better than before.
    • Listen to this version against the original (demo) mix.
    • Love the way the noise and the lyrics play against each other.
    • Gorgeous melody here.
    • The ending is brilliant to the point of being glorious.
      • “Reservations”
        • I like this tune, but always felt like it could have been a little more resounding.
        • Then again, perhaps a little more flourish would have been too over the top for this record?
        • That chorus is doggone lovely.
        • What is that distant organ thing at the end?
        • That creaking noise at the end is a nice touch.

ALBUM NOTES

  • Imposing album cover. It just grabs you. Those towers look like giant electrical transistors or something.
  • Noise all over the place in general. This is a fun record for headphones. It sounds very liveable, like they didn’t worry too much about the perfect take.
  • Fabulous concept. The impact of distance upon communication in general and love in particular. This record covers a lot of emotional ground but stays on subject pretty well.
  • I’m not crazy about a few of the tunes (mostly "Radio Cure"), but even that one holds together well with the rest, and is pretty pivotal in terms of concept.
  • This one may have a sensational back story (see the film, it’s a winner), but the great thing is that the music doesn’t rely on any of that.
  • This was the last album with Bennett. While Wilco changed drastically after his departure, they have managed to find their way ahead. He certainly left his mark though. Regardless of how JT and JB felt about each other, they made a great musical team.
  • Ken Coomer got the axe too. Apparently his drumming was too inflexible.
  • You’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t download the demos right now.
  • All in all, one thing is for certain. If you are a dude named “Jay”, then stay the hell away from Jeff Tweedy.

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

Quick Review (LP): Summerteeth by Wilco

Wilco
Summerteeth
Reprise; 1999

My Rating: A (86/100)

Best Tracks: "Shot In The Arm", "I’m Always In Love", "How To Fight Loneliness", "Via Chicago", "When You Wake Up Feeling Old", "Summerteeth", "In A Future Age"

Fractured folk and power pop hybrid – “summer here and summer over there.”

TRACK NOTES

  • You know what "Can’t Stand It" reminds me of? "You’re So Vain." Cool tune though, poppy as a hell, a great jumping off point.
  • "She’s A Jar" is the first of the record’s slower, abstract folk numbers. Tweedy’s in abstract poetry mode there.
  • "Shot In The Arm" is still a live favorite of the band. It’s a really cool, spacey, Neu!-ish tune. Great lyrics.
  • "What you once were isn’t what you wanna be/Anymore!"
  • "We’re Just Friends" is a personal favorite. Sort of reminds me of Randy Newman.
  • Same with "Always In Love." I love how big it is as a power-pop song. Tweedy sounds like he’s coming off the rails.
  • "Nothing’severgonnastandinmywayagain" is cute, but it’s a bit annoying too. I’ll take it though.
  • "Pieholden Suite" may not be one of the better tracks here, but it sort of points toward the band’s more experimental/fragmented approach on later records.
  • "How To Fight Loneliness" is a gorgeous little acoustic strummer. Great instrumentation.
  • "Via Chicago" is another tune that points toward Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Brilliant in every way.
  • "I dreamed about killing you again last night/And it felt alright to me" – that is so great.
  • "ELT" is cool, but sort of drags in the middle and pails in comparison to some of the other power pop numbers herein.
  • I just don’t care much for "My Darling."
  • I love "When You Wake Up Feeling Old." It’s one of my all-time Wilco favorites. It almost sounds like something Chicago would’ve recorded in collaboration with The Beach Boys.
  • The title track features some great lead guitar work. It’s a nice combo of the record’s two sides.
  • "In A Future Age" is similar to "Via Chicago". Perhaps not as dark, but equally great. Love the piano work there.
  • Imagine The Beach Boys of the mid-60’s forming a band with Alex Chilton and Chris Bell in the early 70’s and you pretty much have the magnificent "Candyfloss."

ALBUM NOTES

  • Great late night driving album. Amazingly good for top of the lung singalongs in order to stay awake.
  • This album, more than any other, strikes me as a partnership between Tweedy and Bennett. Bennett really exerted his "throw everything at it" production mindset with Summerteeth.
  • There are two sides to this album: a sunny, power pop side where the upbeat tunes foil Tweedy’s utterly miserable disposition at the time and the understated, experimental folk side where fractured but gorgeous tunes pass the time and Tweedy crafts some amazingly adventurous lyrics.
  • I compare this one to Radiohead’s OK Computer. Not quite as experimental as it seemed when it first came out, but it serves as a turning point for the band and the record when people really started to take notice.
  • Given the two faces of the album (power pop/fractured folk), I’m starting to sense some of the brilliance of the record.
  • When it all comes down to it, this album contains about 10 or 11 amazing songs, and while many are unpolished, there is an open-ended feel to everything here that makes it very listenable.
  • The definition of “summerteeth” according to the Urban Dictionary. I’m thinking this refers to the fact that the album contains both light and dark songs. It could also refer to the way the lyrics are really biting at times. Also, Tweedy has a thing for interesting words as well, and I think that factors in.
  • Always thought that moon image was a captivating cover.

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

Quick Review (LP): Recovering the Satellites by Counting Crows

recovering the satellites Counting Crows
Recovering the Satellites
DGC; 1996

My Rating: A- (83/100)

Best Tracks: “Daylight Fading”, “Children In Bloom”, “Monkey”, “A Long December”

After channeling Van Morrison on their first record, the Crows hired Pixies producer Gil Norton and decided to channel The Band on their second. You’ve got Dan Vickrey and his massive, flaming guitar riffs as Robbie Robertson, Duritz as the fame-wrecked and soulful Richard Manuel, and even Charles Gillingham’s organ sounds like the madness that Garth Hudson was putting out back in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Where lovely mandolins once adorned the band’s pretty folk songs, Duritz has instead concocted a collection of stadium-sized hard rock songs. Some of them are epic. “Children In Bloom” and “Recovering the Satellites” both go way beyond anything you’d have thought the band was capable of on August and Everything After, and “Miller’s Angels” is about as impressionistic, cathartic, and arcane as a roots rock band could be that side of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Yet the album shares one key thing with August – great songs. Between “Daylight Fading”, “Monkey”, and “Have You Seen Me Lately?”, this is one of the better rock albums of a hard rock decade. That’s notable, especially since Duritz really doesn’t get much credit as a rock musician. But the proof is here for those who are willing to listen and put aside the fact that he is also the guy who wrote (great!) wuss-rock like “Mr. Jones” and “Round Here.” Still, the final word must go to “A Long December”, which is quite simply one of the greatest tracks of the 90’s, and the sort of tune that is nearly impossible not to sing along with. Naysayers, respect is due.

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

Related Links:
My review of August and Everything After
AMG review of Recovering the Satellites
Duritz on the songs
SputnikMusic reviews of Recovering the Satellites