Billy Bragg & Wilco: Mermaid Avenue
Billy Bragg & Wilco: Mermaid Avenue II
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
A Ghost Is Born
Kicking Television: Live In Chicago
Sky Blue Sky
Wilco (The Album)
The Whole Love
What's Your 20? Essential Tracks 1994–2014
A.M. (Reprise ’95) Rating: B+
When Uncle Tupelo broke up following the release of their excellent major label debut Anodyne, their small but devoted following was devastated. Uncle Tupelo appeared to be headed for more great things, but after their premature breakup people feared the worst. However, with the release of A.M., Jeff Tweedy proved that he could continue without Jay Farrar, which surprised the many people who felt that Farrar had been the primary talent in Uncle Tupelo. Actually, Farrar's first album with Son Volt was the more impressive debut of the two Tupelo boys, but Tweedy was just getting started and would ultimately easily outshine his former sparring partner (who I would agree clearly shined brighter in Uncle Tupelo). Anyway, with former Uncle Tupelo bandmates (circa Anodyne) John Stirratt (bass), Ken Coomer (drums), and Max Johnston (fiddle, dobro, mandolin, and banjo) aboard, and with Brian Henneman of The Bottle Rockets supplying first-rate help on lead guitar, A.M. continued the Uncle Tupelo tradition of impeccably constructed, country-tinged rock songs. Although many of these songs share a similar mid-tempo pace, Tweedy knows how to incorporate fresh sounding instruments (fiddle, banjo, pedal steel guitar, dobro, mandolin) to keep things interesting, and A.M. is filled with easy going, melodic, and catchy songs. The album also rocks surprisingly hard at times, particularly on the Stones-y barroom stomper “Casino Queen.” Other notable highlights include the bittersweet album opener “I Must Be High,” the one about the “Box Full Of Letters” (a farewell to Farrar?), the other one about how he "Should've Been In Love," the drunk driving tale about riding on the “Passenger Side,” and the beautifully understated and evocative “Dash 7.” On the downside, a few of these songs are rather plain sounding, and few risks are taken on the whole as the album was rushed out to capitalize on the belated acclaim of Uncle Tupelo. Perhaps too much pop sweetening was added to the final mixes as well, but these songs are all good for the most part, anyway. True, I miss Farrar’s world-weary voice and Uncle Tupelo’s harmonies, but Tweedy’s gritty, heartfelt rasp of a voice is equally affecting in its own way. Fittingly, the album ends with another dig at former friend Farrar (“when I needed you, you were gone – so long”), as Tweedy confidently embraces his independence on this accomplished if unambitious first album. Note: In what would be his first and last composition with the band, Tweedy's trusted sidekick Stirratt (as of 2002 the lone remaining original member of the band left) wrote and sang "It's Just That Simple." Those who want to hear more of what Stirratt can do should seek out his side project The Autumn Defense.
Being There (Reprise ’96) Rating: A
With guitarist Henneman being replaced by Jay Bennett (this multi-instrumentalist's innumerable other contributions include keyboards, overdubs, arrangements, and overall studio wizardry), Wilco returned a mere year later with the album that forever left behind limiting labels such as "country rock." A far more adventurous and spontaneous affair than A.M., the astounding ambitiousness of Being There surprised many people, but what was even more surprising was how well Wilco pulled things off. This was due to several reasons, the first being the band's relentless touring schedule in support of A.M., which made Wilco come together as an actual, often-exceptional band. In addition, Tweedy moonlighted in a "supergroup" called Golden Smog (their charmingly off the cuff debut album, Down By The Old Mainstream, appeared in 1995), which increased his confidence. Couple that with an equally confident band of like-minded players who were ready, willing, and able to realize his creative vision, and the result was something special. Writing all 19 tracks, Jeff Tweedy stakes his claim as one of America’s finest tunesmiths by showcasing a remarkable facility with a wide range of styles. Taking its cue from classic rock influences such as The Rolling Stones, The Faces, Gram Parsons, The Replacements, Big Star, and The Band, the album has a loose, live in the studio feel, and the band’s bold risks usually pay off handsomely on this consistently stellar package. For example, “Misunderstood,” the largely improvised leadoff track, alone runs the gamut from feedback-drenched guitar to a stark piano and Tweedy’s quiet voice; it slowly builds to a crescendo that showcases Beatles-influenced melodies and strings, as well as vocals that are a dead ringer for a young Rod Stewart and lyrics pulled from Peter Laughner; the song then fades out with some acoustic strumming on guitar. The song is obviously all over the map, yet Wilco pulls these disparate elements together splendidly, in part because they're learning that sometimes it's the spaces between the notes that say the most musically. Elsewhere, although Tweedy’s ambitions overwhelm him occasionally, on most of these songs he manages to keep things simple. For example, Wilco convincingly rocks out on loose, catchy tunes such as “Monday,” “Outtasite (Outta Mind)” (which is unnecessarily redone on side two in a poppier if inferior version rebranded “Outta Mind (Outta Site)"), and “I Got You (At The End Of The Century).” Here Wilco is simply a straight up rock n’ roll band, and a damn good one at that. Lest we forget, Wilco show that they haven’t lost their folksy country rock touch on songs such as “Far, Far Away,” “Forget The Flowers,” “What’s The World Got In Store,” “Someday Soon,” and “(Was I) In Your Dreams.” Indeed, some of Wilco’s best moments are on several beautifully stark musical paintings that resonate with longing. Lyrics like “when I came here today, all I wanted was to say how much I miss you” (“Red-Eyed And Blue”) and “do you miss me, just say you miss me” (“Say You Miss Me”) don’t need explanations because we’ve all felt such simple yet vital emotions. When he says “sounds like someone else’s song from a long time ago,” does Tweedy mean Farrar again, or is he simply acknowledging the longstanding musical legacy he has inherited and has himself enriched? On “Why Would You Wanna Live,” when Tweedy laments “kid, you’ve paid your dues, dues and dues,” he’s probably alluding to the many years he's been in exceptional bands out of the limelight while lesser talents got the glory and the cash. However, on the very next song, “The Lonely 1,” a heartwarming love letter from a fan, Tweedy resolutely makes it clear why he must make music for a living, commercial success be damned. In fact, when he sings “music is my savior” (on “Sunken Treasure,” another outstanding, highly experimental epic that along with "Misunderstood" pointed the way towards Yankee Hotel Foxtrot), rather than sounding like a corny cliché it feels like a heartfelt denouement. Yet far from being a cuddly love-fest, the increasingly personal lyrics also often reveal an angrier side (example: "I want to thank you all for nothin' at all"), as Tweedy, now a father with adult responsibilities and mortgage payments to make, grapples with growing up. Yet such is the overall playfulness of the album that stream-of-consciousness lyrics are also commonplace, and some songs ("Hotel Arizona," "Kingpin," "Dreamer In My Dreams") have a ramshackle flavor and are almost demo-like in their deliberate imperfectness. In truth, though they’re not bad by any means, I could live without one or two of these songs and the aforementioned remake, as like most double albums (note: it sold at the price of a single album, at considerable cost to the band) this one would've benefited from a bit of trimming. Still, this challenging second installment was a true tour-de-force that tried to cover all bases of the rock n' roll spectrum, and as such the sheer chutzpah of the attempt and the high overall success rate of the album is still stunning. Note: After this album Max Johnston was given his walking papers, while pedal steel player Bob Egan became a full-time band member. Note #2: On a personal note, this album will always have a special place in my heart, as way back when my review of it (not the same as this one) was the first thing I ever got published; I even still have the review framed.
Mermaid Avenue (Elektra ’98) Rating: A-
Named after the street Woody Guthrie lived on in the years after World War II, this unlikely partnership came about when Guthrie’s daughter Nora approached Billy Bragg about putting music to some of her father’s unreleased lyrics. Enlisting Wilco as further collaborators, 15 lyrics were molded into an improbably fine album, as they manage to infuse the legendary folk singer’s lyrics with a hearty rock n’ roll spirit. Wilco provides the rustic garageland sound, while Bragg and Wilco singer Jeff Tweedy alternate lead vocals (and, generally speaking, musical credits), though they also duet on the excellent “The Unwelcome Guest.” Guest vocalist Natalie Merchant lends lovely harmonies to Bragg's “Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key” and sings lead on the short but sweet “Birds And Ships,” while the loping country folk and weary vocals of “California Stars” comes across as classic Wilco. This song is so natural sounding that it seems to have always existed, while mellow songs such as “At My Window Sad And Lonely,” “One By One,” and “Another Man’s Done Gone” are other near-perfect Wilco vehicles. For his part, Bragg shines on the catchy sing alongs of “Walt Whitman’s Niece” and “She Came Along To Me,” as well as when he desperately describes “Eisler on the Go” or relives a union fight on the upbeat “I Guess I Planted.” As befitting stories that were penned over a period of many years, there is no central theme to these tales, which range from “nonsense songs for his kids like “Hoodoo Voodoo”” to “mid-century love songs like “Hesitating Beauty”” (to quote from Bragg’s liner notes). Generally speaking, Tweedy embraced Guthrie's eccentricities while Bragg was predictably more concerned with politics. This caused considerable friction during the recording sessions, as Tweedy "never did understand why we were recording songs about brownshirted Fascists clobbering people in the streets of Italy during the '30s." Yet Wilco weren't above recording political songs (witness "Christ For President"), and Bragg tackled more personal songs as well, with playfully lusty nods not only to “Walt Whitman’s Niece” but to "Ingrid Bergman." So, compromises were made and the album is surprisingly cohesive, though Wilco's songs are generally rougher, while Bragg pushed his vocals up within a slicker mix that also caused much consternation in the Wilco camp. Still, aside from occasionally simplistic or repetitive lyrics and sometimes seemingly tossed off music (the loose, joyous feel of which is also a plus), this acclaimed album was an inspired collaboration that boosted the stock of all involved (including Woody Guthrie). Indeed, despite the ego clashes and undeniable difficulties they all had in making the album, it definitely sounds like they had fun making it, and it sure is fun to listen to. To quote Guthrie: “I don’t know, I may go down or up or anywhere, but I feel that this scribbling might stay” - Mermaid Avenue ensures that it will. Note: Egan's short stay in Wilco ended with this album, though in an improbable turn of events he ended up in Bragg's touring band.
Summerteeth (Reprise ’99) Rating: A
It can be argued that Wilco has yet to make a wrong artistic move. First Jay Tweedy proved that he could go it alone without former Uncle Tupelo buddy Jay Farrar, and though A.M. merely reestablished past strengths it was an accomplished effort in a familiar vein that got his new band off and running on the right foot. Being There was quite a pleasantly unexpected departure, covering considerable ground and evoking bands (The Rolling Stones, The Replacements) that not many people thought Wilco could keep pace with (they did). Then came the even more surprising Woody Guthrie/Billy Bragg collaboration Mermaid Avenue, which the critics fully embraced, though to these ears it was merely another fine continuation of the band’s consistent quality. Now comes Summerteeth, making the band four for four as Wilco’s alt country roots take an even further back seat to the band’s blooming pop sensibilities. Amazingly, the lush, downright sumptuous music on Summerteeth is as different from Being There as Being There had been from A.M.. Although the album can't compete with Being There in terms of spontaneous excitement, what with its endless amounts of overdubs (spearheaded by Bennett, who was beginning to rival Tweedy in terms of importance within the band, all while Coomer and Stirratt took subservient roles, causing much friction among the band's ranks), this beautifully conceived pop album is actually superior in many ways. Sure, Wilco can still on occasion be plain and lag a little in the energy department, but at their worst this merely makes them pleasant, and most of Summerteeth sees the band at their absolute best. Indeed, glistening pop gems such as “Can’t Stand It,” “A Shot In The Arm,” “I’m Always In Love,” and “Nothingsevergonnastandinmyway(again)” should've been all over the radio, while sad and pretty ballads (with Bennett's keyboards/piano/synths often occupying center stage) are also prominent. In addition, "did he really say that?" lyrics like "you know she begs me not to hit her" (the last line of the absolutely gorgeous "She's A Jar") and “I dreamed about killing you again last night and it felt alright to me” (the first line of the crucial "Via Chicago") revealed a much darker side of himself than Tweedy had previously allowed, which is why he elected to soften the blow by delivering his often painfully personal lyrics behind the band's elaborate arrangements (which owe more to Brian Wilson than to Gram Parsons or the Stones). Still, it's not all darkness, as musically many of these songs are a perfect fit for a sunny day ("ELT" and "Summer Teeth" are awfully catchy as well), while the sweetly sentimental “My Darling” lovingly addresses Tweedy's newborn child. These mostly low-key but sometimes sprightly songs, some of which have surprisingly adventurous arrangements and twists - such as when the "Penny Lane"-like horns kick in on the multi-sectioned “Pieholden Suite,” the album's most ambitious and song - might take a few spins to sink in. However, most of these songs about love, love lost (mostly, as Tweedy's marriage was troubled at the time), “How To Fight Loneliness” (solution: “just smile all the time”), and “When You Wake Up Feeling Old” will sink in eventually, as Wilco continues to age like a fine wine in becoming one of America’s very best bands.
Mermaid Avenue II (Elektra ’00) Rating: B+
There were plenty of leftovers from the Mermaid Avenue sessions, (Guthrie supposedly has about 2500 unrecorded lyrics!), so a mere two years later here comes Mermaid Avenue II, the rare sequel that holds its own against an inspired original. Though some songs here echo the first volume (“Black Wind Blowing” and “Eisler on the Go,” for example), there are considerable differences between the two volumes, though if you like one you’d do well to pick up the other. II is more rock oriented and encompasses a dizzying array of styles compared to its more straightforward yet slightly superior predecessor, beginning with the propulsive, Dylanesque opener, “Airline To Heaven.” “My Flying Saucer” is a simple but heartfelt love song sung by Bragg, a rarity since Wilco usually handles Guthrie’s romantic side on songs such as the poppy “Secret of the Sea,” the poetic, romantic “Remember the Mountain Bed” (at 6+ minutes the centerpiece song on the album), and the album closer “Someday Some Morning Sometime,” whose abstract prettiness again points the way towards Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The rest of the album is much more spontaneous and rootsy sounding than either that album or Summerteeth, however. Wilco’s Jay Bennett is all over the place, playing a multitude of instruments and again showing that Wilco (who are on quite a winning streak) are far more than merely leader Jeff Tweedy. For his part, Bragg tackles socially conscious songs such as the wonderfully moody “Hot Rod Hotel,” on which Guthrie makes it known that even the most menial job deserves a certain amount of dignity and respect. Memorable lyrics also mark pointedly political songs such as “Stetson Kennedy” (“I ain’t the world's best writer nor the world's best speller, but when I believe in something I’m the loudest yeller, if we fix it so’s you can’t make money on a war, we’ll all forget what we’re killing folks for”) and “All You Fascists," the album's hardest rocking song. The nostalgic “Joe DiMaggio Done It Again” sees Wilco hitting an effortless country groove, but elsewhere things are far more experimental. In particular, the offbeat atmospherics of “Blood Of The Lamb” and the harsh, chaotic “Meanest Man” wouldn’t sound out of place on a Tom Waits album, while drummer Ken Coomer powers the highly percussive, groove-based (and also quite chaotic) "Feed Of Man." Guest appearances this time come from bluesman Corey Harris, who has a star turn on the oddly upbeat “Against Th’ Law,” and Natalie Merchant, who again sings lead on the child-like, nursery rhyme-ish “I Was Born.” Such far ranging styles might make this album flow less smoothly than its predecessor, which was more easily loveable, but by and large Guthrie’s lyrics again greatly benefit from these sympathetic yet adventurous musical treatments, which go well beyond anything that Guthrie himself would have attempted. And with so many unused lyrics still left over, one can only hope that there will eventually be a Mermaid Avenue III (though as the years pass this seems less likely). Update: In 2012, the Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions box set was released; it’s comprised of both Mermaid Avenue albums along with a third disc of outtakes from the same sessions that yielded the first two albums.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch ’02) Rating: A
This album is already as famous (or infamous) for the music business politics the band had to endure in order to get it released as it is for its music. Recording sessions for this album were difficult to say the least; Ken Coomer, whose instinctive, first take philosophy was often at odds with Tweedy and Bennett's exacting studio methods and increasingly impressionistic songwriting, was fired during the sessions, while Jay Bennett, who again had a huge hand in this album's creation but who grew increasingly isolated from his bandmates in the process, was unanimously kicked out of the band after the album's completion. Multi-instrumentalist Leroy Bach (who had actually joined the band awhile earlier) and the multi-talented, ego-less drummer Glenn Kotche (who had a light yet tight touch, not to mention a special relationship with Tweedy) rounded out the lineup, and when Wilco were finally happy with the results of their labors, they handed the finished album in to their record company, Reprise, who promptly rejected it due to its alleged lack of hit single potential. Rather than redo an album that they were very satisfied with, the band got out of their recording contract, streamed the album on the Internet, and became part of an intense bidding war due to the "story" the album had become and the rave reviews posted on Internet message boards. In an ironic turn of events, Wilco ended up on Nonesuch Records, who happen to be owned by the same parent company (Warner Brothers) as Reprise!
Well, Reprise ended up with egg on their faces, as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot received rave reviews across the board. Still, I can see why they were apprehensive, for this album is easily Wilco’s most abstract and experimental to date, in part probably due to the presence of "post rock" producer Jim O’Rourke, who helps open up the band’s sound by incorporating lots of cool bits in the background, adding shade and color to these 11 sturdy songs.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is an album of contrasts. For example, one song is called “I am Trying To Break Your Heart,” while another is called “I’m The Man Who Loves You.” Elsewhere, upbeat pop songs such as “Kamera,” “War On War,” “Heavy Metal Drummer” (so much for the album having no commercial potential!) nestle side by side with fantastic downbeat fare like “Radio Cure,” “Jesus, Etc.,” “Ashes Of American Flags,” and “Poor Places.” Ultimately, however “this is a hopeful album” (to quote Tweedy), and “Reservations” ends the album on an especially romantic note (“I have reservations about so many things, but not about you”), thereby putting to rest the lovesick doubts of Summerteeth.
There are plenty of other memorable lines throughout the record, such as “you have to learn how to die, if you wanna be alive” (really about failing before succeeding), “how can I convince you it's me I don’t like,” and “every song is a comeback.” Yet Wilco’s biggest strength has always been their music, and this album’s deeply textured music is always exceedingly accomplished and consistently surprising. For example, “I’m The Man Who Loves You” adds raw Neil Young-ian guitar and Chicago-like horns to what could’ve been a simple pop melody. Then again, Tweedy isn't interested in writing simple pop songs, preferring instead to deconstruct and reconfigure his simple melodies with baroque arrangements or strange yet compelling sonic embellishments. True, a case could be made that the band at times goes overboard with the bells and whistles this time, as they occasionally distract from or compromise some fine melodies. Still, Wilco's sonic tinkerings are extremely successful far more often than not, sometimes spectacularly so, such as on “I am Trying to Break Your Heart,” an all but indescribable soundscape whose inventive tape loops, white noise, and inspired studio manipulations give it an entrancing overall effect. Another highlight is "War On War," which adds instruments one at a time; acoustic guitar, synthesizers, drums, and piano. When the piano kicks in it's one of those great moments, while the song's chilly ending evokes Radiohead circa OK Computer (indeed, with this atmospheric album many people started calling Wilco "the American Radiohead," which is quite a compliment). It is these often-subtle twists and turns that make Yankee Hotel Foxtrot worth returning to even after the 50th or 100th listen.
Of course, the album’s unique flavor and attention to atmospheric details is also what makes it an album that requires repeat listens and your rapt attention for a full appreciation. It also isn’t without its flaws (in addition to the sonic overkill already mentioned). For example, an ongoing Wilco problem recurs in that some of the slower songs seem plain at first and lag a little in the energy department, and perhaps certain sections will seem a bit overly labored over and cerebral to those who prefer Wilco's rootsier, let's roll with it style. However, I for one grealy enjoy every song here (also including “Pot Kettle Black”), and this is one of those albums that adds up to more than the sum of its impressive individual parts (witness the cool transition from the ultra-serious "Ashes of American Flags" to the lightly nostalgic "Heavy Metal Drummer," for example).
So, is Yankee Hotel Foxtrot Wilco’s masterpiece, as several publications have claimed (the album won most 2002 year-end critic polls)? Well, I think that label sells short the band’s other albums, in particular the also-great Being There and Summerteeth. Instead, I’d call this terrific album the not-so-logical continuation and evolution of what is arguably America’s best modern day band. Note: I am Trying To Break Your Heart, the fine Sam Jones directed documentary that captures the difficulties that Wilco had in making and releasing this album, was also released in 2002. Note #2: Loose Fur, a Tweedy side project that was conceived when he began playing with Kotche and O'Rourke in 2000, had their self-titled debut album belatedly released in 2003; that year Wilco also backed Scott McCaughey's band The Minus 5 on Down With Wilco.
A Ghost Is Born (Nonesuch ’04) Rating: A-
Always one to defy expectations, Jeff Tweedy ditched most of the previous album's post-production fussiness on A Ghost Is Born, the band's most spontaneous, live-in-the-studio sounding album since Being There. Several songs here see the band as loose and frisky as they've been in eons, while "Hummingbird" and "Theologians" are piano-pop confections worthy of ELO or even the Fab Four. Elsewhere, Jeff Tweedy the guitar player comes to the fore as never before, possibly in part because he wanted to prove that he could cut it in a role previously occupied by Bennett. Actually, Bennett was never allowed to let loose like this on record (in concert is another story), and though Tweedy isn't the guitarist that Bennett is from a technical standpoint, his fractured, sloppy playing is undeniably exciting in a Neil Young & Crazy Horse kind of way. In addition to an abundance of guitar solos, groove-based songs such as "Spiders (Kidsmoke) (10+ minutes of krautrock-y goodness that would make Stereolab proud), "Muzzle Of Bees" (which admittedly takes a little while to get going), and "Handshake Drugs" see the rhythm section flexing their muscles in impressive fashion, while piano is also prominent on many songs, often played by new Wilco member Mikael Jorgensen. Lyrically, Tweedy is getting more and more oblique, while musically many of these songs unfold leisurely (boringly, I'm sure some would say, but I'd advise you people to keep on trying), and as such it should come as no surprise that this is Wilco's longest album in some time at 67 minutes. Of course, 15 of those minutes, or at least 12 of them, are a near total waste of time, as "Less Than You Think" starts slowly before veering into 12 minutes of what seems like little more than subtle variations of static-y sounds. Certainly my 3-year old son was baffled by what was emanating from my cd player, and I myself find it difficult to fathom what the band was thinking, as the song is a self-indulgent bore. Still, this egregious misfire can be skipped easily enough, and it's by far the weakest song on the album, though “I’m A Wheel” is also sort of filler-ish, whereas I’ve grown to really like other songs such as "Wishful Thinking," "Company In My Back," and “The Late Greats.” Elsewhere, "At Least That's What You Said" gets the album off to a roaring start (scratch that "light yet tight" description of Kotche in my last review, 'cause he can come on like a monster if the song calls for it), while "Hell Is Chrome" is highlighted by a searing Tweedy guitar solo and its sing along vocals, with Stirratt adding stirring (sorry, couldn't help myself) background vocals (his vocals have always been a valuable if rarely remarked upon asset to the band). All in all, A Ghost Is Born is nothing more or less than simply another great (if flawed) Wilco album, one that has its own unique qualities (longer songs, more guitar solos and undecipherable lyrics, and an increased emphasis on groove) while also sharing qualities with previous albums (O'Rourke is again heavily involved, repeat listens are required, etc.), particularly Being There (not a bad thing as that's always been a personal favorite). Note: Having for years self-medicated to deal with migraine headaches, anxiety attacks, and depression (small wonder that he can be tough to work with), Tweedy checked into rehab soon before this album's release. He seems to be doing better now (late 2004), but he was saddened by the departure of Leroy Bach after the completion of this album (unlike the others, Bach left of his own accord). However, the subsequent addition of Stirratt's multi-instrumentalist Autumn Defense partner Pat Sansone and the gifted guitarist Nels Cline should help matters, as should O'Rourke's continued presence. Regardless, by now it's pretty clear that, no matter who is or isn't in Wilco, so long as Jeff Tweedy is steering the ship the band will not only survive, but thrive.
Kicking Television: Live In Chicago (Nonesuch ’05) Rating: A-
Far from the career encompassing live retrospective that I might've hoped for, this live album, recorded along with lively audiences over four days at the Vic Theatre in Chicago, instead culls 16 of its 23 songs from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born. And while I personally find this over-reliance on recent material slightly disappointing, I understand it since Tweedy has never exactly been a looking back kind of guy, and besides, I can't fault the performances themselves, since by and large they're first rate. Wilco is a great band, that much is obvious, and these versions are grittier, rawer, and more rocking than their studio counterparts, with several exciting guitar epics ("Handshake Drugs," "At Least That's What You Said," "Muzzle Of Bees," "Ashes Of American Flags," "Spiders (Kidsmoke)") serving as obvious highlights. Perhaps there are no real shocking reinventions here, and some songs, such as "I am Trying To Break Your Heart," "A Shot In The Arm," "Heavy Metal Drummer," and "Jesus, Etc." are noticeably inferior without the studio tricks and/or added gloss. But they’re still very good at least, and there are many interesting tweaks throughout, such as the Nels Cline-ized version of "I'm The Man Who Loves You," the dramatic swells in "Via Chicago," and an intense, incredible "Misunderstood" that's greatly enhanced by enthusiastic audience participation ("NOTHING! NOTHING!..."). As for Cline, the high profile new member of the band, he certainly makes his presence felt, as he fills out the band's sound and his stellar guitar playing enables Tweedy to further embrace harsher, more dissonant sounds. Yet despite Tweedy's fondness for abrasiveness he remains above all else a great melody writer, and that's apparent throughout these 23 songs, though disc two is perhaps a tad too ballad-heavy in its mid-section and again the overall song selection could've been a bit better. As for any added enticements for non-diehards, well, the title track new song and the old Charles Wright song "Comment" are nothing special, though I suspect that both work better in person, with the latter's "how many friends can you truly say you have?" being the kind of "we're all in this together" type of lyric that unites fans and makes for a perfect concert closer.
Sky Blue Sky (Nonesuch ’07) Rating: B+
After years of constantly changing their sound and being extremely experimental and adventurous while managing to somehow stay accessible, Wilco deserve a break. A break from reinventing themselves I mean, as Sky Blue Sky is their most conventional and least daring album in some time. They've earned that right, after all, and this time they've shed audacious sonics to focus on simple songs, most of which fortunately are of a very high quality. I suppose that the Wilco album that this one most reminds me of is Summerteeth, though it also has an earthy, rootsy touch that brings Being There to mind. Then again, vibrant guitar jams are occasionally unleashed, such as on "You Are My Face" and "Side With The Seeds," both of which make me think of A Ghost Is Born and Kicking Television (and both of which have other virtues as well, including lovely dual vocals on the former and impressive orchestral swells on the latter). Unfortunately, this album isn't quite as good as any of those high-quality artistic statements, though "Either Way," "Sky Blue Sky," "Please Be Patient With Me," and "Leave Me (Like You Found Me)" all have a subdued, understated beauty even though they're not exactly the most exciting or memorable songs around (in fact "Leave Me (Like You Found Me)" in particular is pretty boring). The albums best song, indeed one of the band’s best songs ever, is "Impossible Germany," whose wonderfully melodic guitars actually bring Thin Lizzy to mind, and "Walken" is also notably different, what with its sprightly piano melody, dueling slide guitars, and Tweedy's distinctive falsetto vocals. The country-ish "What Light" is catchy and singable, and "On and On and On" is a dramatic, atmospheric finale that like many songs here features piano and/or keyboards prominently. Aside from the awkward "Shake It Off," the album on the whole is consistently solid, with the missing my woman tale “Hate It Here” being especially strong from a lyrical standpoint. O'Rourke had little to do with Sky Blue Sky, which perhaps helps explain its less produced, more organic overall feel, and though you could argue that Cline is underutilized given the mellow nature of the album, he does have his fair share of stellar moments (again, "Impossible Germany” features an exquisite extended solo that’s among my all time favorites). Also of note is Tweedy's more direct lyrical approach, which is refreshing, but ultimately this stands as merely a very good Wilco album since few of these songs rank among Tweedy's very best. Actually, about half of these songs are band co-compositions, so Tweedy seems to be lightening the reins somewhat. Still, despite breaking some new ground the overall end result is merely pleasantly enticing, and like most people I've come to expect more from this band than that given their groundbreaking prior exploits. Come to think of it, the album that this one most reminds me of is A.M. in that this is another very good but unambitious album that seems destined to be underrated and overshadowed by the band's (justifiably) more celebrated other albums. Still, that shouldn't stop you from listening to it, for Sky Blue Sky is an enjoyable collection of unassuming songs. P.S.: As an added bonus, Sky Blue Skyhas my favorite Wilco album cover along with the also-striking Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
Wilco (The Album) (Nonesuch ’09) Rating: B+
For the first time a Wilco album is a continuation of the previous album, and this modest self-titled album is likewise a mild disappointment in that they're merely delivering more of the same rather than knocking my socks off with a complete reinvention, a la most of their previous albums. Fortunately, like on Sky Blue Sky, once I got fully acquainted with the album my disappointment was tempered by the realization that this is still a high-quality album, one that's lighter and more optimistic than prior Wilco albums. I still wouldn't exactly call them a party band, but the camel with the party hat on the cover attests to the fact that the band is loosening up and having fun, perhaps buoyed by Tweedy overcoming his demons and having a stable band lineup for a change. The first half of the album is mostly excellent, while the second half of the album is mostly merely good. "Wilco (The Song)" starts the album off with good riffs and a catchy, lighthearted, comforting message to their fans ("Wilco will love you"), and "Deeper Down" (the only song not totally written by Tweedy, in contrast to the more democratic approach the last time out) continues with a pretty, atmospheric entry that's notable for Cline's stellar guitar playing. Man, this guy can make a guitar cry like Duane Allman or Roy Buchanan, and his evocative playing also elevates "One Wing," another really good effort which also showcases the band’s strong harmonies. The next song is arguably the album's most interesting, as they unleash their trademark experimental streak that many would argue is too often lacking elsewhere. Recalling A Ghost Is Born, "Bull Black Nova" features twitchy vocals and rhythms but is mostly about its tense, Television-esque guitar interplay. Far different, "You and I" is a sweetly melodic duet with Leslie Feist, while the catchy "You Never Know" recalls the sumptuous summery pop of Summerteeth and was the easy choice as the album's first single. When hearing this song and maybe a few others it's hard for me not to think of Jay Bennett, who so shaped that album's sound and who died last year of an accidental overdose. Anyway, onto the less impressive second half of the album, which also features solid songs but which is simply less memorable on the whole. Still, I find the passionate harmonized vocals of "Country Disappeared" to be extremely affecting, and "Solitaire" is another slow, sparse ballad (with pretty pedal steel and atmospheric organ) that's a real grower. Rounding out the set list, "I'll Fight" is more up-tempo and catchier if overly repetitive, "Sunny Feeling" isn't particularly memorable but features some good guitar (I'll bet that this song is really good live, where this incarnation of the band truly shines), and "Everlasting Everything" is a dramatic finale whose more adventurous, fractured pop somewhat recalls Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (albeit not as good). Alas, that spirit of adventure is too often lacking elsewhere, as Wilco have perhaps too comfortably settled into a melodic, easy going groove; after all, it's hard to envision albums such as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born being characterized as "dad rock" like these last two albums have been. Of course, dad's need good rock albums to listen to too, and Wilco (The Album) is another very good album from a band who I'm hoping still has it in them to be great again.
The Whole Love (dBpm ’11) Rating: A-
This album is likely to be defined by its ambitious first and last tracks, both of which are all-time Wilco classics. The highly rhythmic 7-minute opener “Art Of Almost” sees Wilco in experimental mode again (it sounds like it could’ve been on A Ghost Is Born), but in addition to being highly atmospheric and ambitious the song rocks hard, as for the first time in a long while I found myself legitimately excited by a Wilco song. Don’t get me wrong, Wilco has had plenty of beautiful and/or catchy songs on their prior two albums, but they had few “wow” moments like the tense, climactic last 2 minutes or so on this track, when Kotche and Cline in particular stand out. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the finale “One Sunday Morning (Song For John Smiley’s Boyfriend)” is an affecting, beautifully low-key 12-minute mood piece that never gets too high or too low and which probably should get boring but which somehow doesn’t (heck, I love all of it and wish it was even longer). The rest of the album is more standard Wilco fare like we’ve come to expect on recent albums, but the overall quality is consistently high throughout, particularly on standout tracks such as “I Might,” a catchy, hard-hitting bass-driven rocker (dig those bright hooky keyboards and lead guitar blitzkriegs too), “Dawned On Me,” a really good tuneful groover with a nice full sound and more excellent guitar playing, and “Born Alone,” whose exuberant jangle pop melody is enhanced by more exciting guitar interjections and great drumming. Perhaps some of the other songs are merely pleasant and don’t really stand out, but there are other nice ballads that possess an understated beauty (“Black Moon,” “Rising Red Lung”), as well as additional notable poppier efforts like the likeable falsetto-flavored “Whole Love.” On the whole, aside from the two long songs there’s nothing here that Wilco hasn’t done before from a stylistic standpoint, and I wouldn’t mind seeing them a little less comfortable and a little more reckless. That said, The Whole Love is another in a long line of very good Wilco albums, their best in a while I’d say even if it’s likely that they’ll never again match their brilliant 1996-2005 heyday.
What's Your 20? Essential Tracks 1994–2014 (Nonesuch ’14) Rating: A
This “best of” compilation marks and celebrates Wilco’s 20-year anniversary as one of the very best bands of modern times. Spanning 2 CDs and 38 tracks, the chronologically sequenced What's Your 20? Essential Tracks 1994–2014 is a predictably excellent run through highlights from the band’s back catalogue, omitting live tracks but including a few Billy Bragg collaborations. Starting with four tracks from A.M. (“I Must Be High,” “Box Full Of Letters,” “Passenger Side,” “Casino Queen”), the band then includes six cuts from Being There (“Misunderstood,” “Red-Eyed and Blue,” “I Got You (At The End Of The Century),” “Monday,” “Outtasite (Outta Mind),” “Sunken Treasure”), two from the first Mermaid Avenue album (“California Stars,” ”Hesitating Beauty”), then ends the first CD with six Summerteeth tracks (“A Shot In The Arm,” “Can’t Stand It,” “She’s A Jar,” “I’m Always In Love,” “How To Fight Loneliness,” “Via Chicago”). The second disc starts by taking a single track from Mermaid Avenue II (“Airline To Heaven”) before delving into their more experimental (and most acclaimed) period with six songs from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (“I am Trying To Break Your Heart,” “I’m The Man Who Loves You,” “War On War,” “Jesus, etc.,” “Ashes Of American Flags,” “Heavy Metal Drummer”) and another four from A Ghost Is Born (“Hummingbird,” “Theologians,” “Handshake Drugs,” “The Late Greats”). Their more standard pop period is then more briefly represented by three songs apiece from Sky Blue Sky (“Hate It Here,” “Impossible Germany,” “Walken”) and Wilco (The Album) (“Wilco (The Song),” “You and I,” “You Never Know”) before the curtain closes with three songs from The Whole Love (“I Might,” “Born Alone,” “Whole Love”). And you know what? These are 38 essential Wilco tracks. If I had to make a 38 song playlist I would’ve made a few changes in order to include personal favorites such as “Dash 7,” “Far, Far Away,” “The Lonely 1,” “Nothing’severgonnastandinmyway(again),” “When You Wake Up Feeling Old,” “Kamera,” “Reservations,” “At Least That’s What You Said,” “Hell Is Chrome,” “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” “Bull Black Nova,” “Art Of Almost,” and “One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend),” but I’m sure that some of these songs were excluded due to time constraints, and on the whole I have few if any complaints about this superb compilation. If you’re new to Wilco, this is a great place to start, because it generously represents all of their periods and if you don’t like one you may very well like another. For long time fans, this is just a great collection of endlessly playable songs all gathered in one place.
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