Music: Wilco

Aug 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Blair Jackson



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From left: Glenn Kotche, Mikael Jorgensen, Jeff Tweedy, Nels Cline, Pat Sansone and John Stirratt

From left: Glenn Kotche, Mikael Jorgensen, Jeff Tweedy, Nels Cline, Pat Sansone and John Stirratt

Since coming onto the scene in the mid-'90s, Wilco has consistently been one of the most unpredictable and adventurous American bands, and leader Jeff Tweedy is among music's most intriguing figures. The three Wilco albums Mix has covered previously — their alt-country debut A.M.; the collaborations with Billy Bragg on songs by Woody Guthrie called Mermaid Avenue; and the eclectic and experimental Yankee Hotel Foxtrot — are all sonically completely different from each other, just as Summerteeth (1999) bears little semblance to the 2007 Sky Blue Sky. Wilco's latest is called Wilco (The Album), and while it doesn't represent a radical departure for the group, it's definitely another left-hand turn down an untraveled road.

“Having had records that people have claimed sound very different for so long…it's never been our intention not to sound like ourselves,” Tweedy mused this spring to writer Scott Timberg of “I think this [new] record incorporates most of the other periods into an overall package — if anything, it's like the Whitman's Sampler record.”

Why now? “This band — which for all of us has become the definitive lineup of Wilco — has been together longer than any other lineup and really feels like what the band was meant to be. When we did the residency shows a year or so ago [five nights at Chicago's Riviera Theatre in February 2008], this band became conversant with all those other records and able to claim some ownership. Whatever different styles we'd tried on those other records, this band is adept at them, and maybe this [new] record grew out of that experience. I think this record is the least self-conscious and most confident of all the Wilco records.”

As usual, it's difficult to characterize the songs on Wilco (The Album) because they cross so many stylistic boundaries and draw from many different influences. A lot of Tweedy's songs have folkish underpinnings, regardless of what style they eventually emerge as, and there are certainly several nods to The Beatles here — “I'll Fight” has a ringing Beatles '65 vibe in places; “Everlasting Everything” contains faint echoes of “A Day in the Life”; and the propulsive “You Never Know” sounds like the best song George Harrison never wrote.

But with Wilco, the flashes of familiarity always bubble up from within the greater, unmistakable “Wilco Sound.” That starts with Tweedy's expressive vocals — always up front, usually (but not always) fairly dry — and then wraps the band around that lead vocal. On this album, there's plenty of cool lap-steel and slide guitar, fuzzed drones, all sorts of tasteful keys — including piano, organ, harpsichord and an occasional synth — lean, solid bass lines, and drums and percussion that ranges from prominent pounding to subtle splashes, depending on the requirements of the song. The liner notes don't say who plays what on which song, but it's a good bet that bass and drums will be John Stirratt and Glenn Kotche, respectively; guitars by Nels Cline, Pat Sansone and Tweedy; and keys by Mikael Jorgensen and Sansone. There are various electronic effects tossed in here and there in small doses, and also a few nice guest spots: Dave Max Crawford on trumpet on a tune, Jason Tobias on slide cimbalom (!) and, most prominently of all, Leslie Feist as duet vocalist on the lovely, affecting folk tune “You and I.” With the notable exception of the edgy and insistent “Bull Black Nova,” Wilco (The Album) is a pleasing and sonorous ride through varying musical and emotional terrain.

This time out, Wilco shared the production responsibilities with Jim Scott, who has mixed Wilco albums dating back to Being There (1996) and certainly is part of the extended Wilco family. Scott, who has worked with so many big names through the years in production, engineering and/or mixing capacities — Petty, Sting, the Chili Peppers, Weezer, Dixie Chicks; the list goes on — and was profiled in Mix's February 2009 issue, says the invitation to get involved with Wilco at the tracking stage happened unexpectedly. In October 2008, the band invited Scott to The Loft — the Northside Chicago warehouse space that serves as their headquarters and studio — and asked him to watch them do some tracking and overdubbing on new material.

“They had recorded versions of almost all the songs that are on the new album,” Scott says. “It was fun watching that. I said, ‘Sounds good, looks like it'll be a great record,’ and then I left. I got a call from Jeff a couple of days later, and he said, ‘Well, what do you think?’ I said, ‘I think the songs are pretty great, but it's not very exciting. I don't think it's as good as you can do. I know it can be better. I think everyone needs to work a little harder.’ I told him in the nicest possible way I didn't think he was ready to start mixing what I'd heard. And I don't think he was thinking it was ready to mix, either; I think he was asking, ‘Where do you think we're at?’ ‘Some good songs, but you need better recordings; let's shine this up. Let's do this right!’ So at that point, he asked, ‘Do you want to make a record with Wilco?’

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