Music Review: Wilco’s “Wilco (the album)”

Originally posted 2009-07-06 23:55:58. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

RATING:  4 / 5 stars

By Chris Moore

For an album that is thematically based in the mysteries of human nature and love, the opening track is remarkably straightforward.  “Are you under the impression / This isn’t your life? / Do you dabble in depression?” Jeff Tweedy inquires in “Wilco (the song)” before declaring that “Wilco will love you baby.”

But don’t let the unabashed directness — even Tweedy admits it may appear cheesy at first  — of this opening track deter you from taking the album seriously.

Immediately after “Wilco (the song)” fades out, the heartbeat of “Deeper Down” steadily fades in with the crash of a cymbal.  This song is more subtle and serves as a reminder that the band has not lost its flair for more experimental fare, even after its flirtation with the more straightforward songwriting and jam band mentalities present on 2007’s Sky Blue Sky.  Aside from the standard acoustic and electric guitars, bass, and drums, this track also incorporates lap steel (which is becoming a standard Wilco instrument, particularly since the arrival of Nels Cline), loops, harpsichord, Mellotron cello and vibraphone, bowed piano (go ahead: look up “bowed piano” — it’s wild…), synthesizer, and cimbalom.  Based on the list of instrumental credits alone, it is apparent Wilco is not through with the sonic experiments that have earned them fame throughout their career, ever since the opening moments of “Misunderstood” on 1996’s Being There.

“Deeper Down” also begins to tackle the core subjects covered by the album, namely the uncertainties in both our relationships and personal lives.  As Tweedy sings, “Out beyond the telescope’s pry / Up above the tallest Dutch dope high / He realized / This mystery is his.”  The unknown elements that the singer is concerned with here are not the ones that can be analyzed by using scientific equipment or engaging in a study.  Rather, personal demons and mysteries are on display for examination throughout the song and the album.

As the next verse begins to employ the metaphor of the ocean floor for the depths of the human mind, a creaking sound invokes the image of a deep sea vehicle moving farther and farther down into the watery depths.

This is the one track on the album that is not written solely by Tweedy.  A collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone, “Deeper Down” is the perfect bookend to the album proper.

“One Wing” returns to the lighthearted lyricism of the opening song, the title metaphor of this third track comparing a full relationship to a bird (“We once belonged to a bird”) and the aftermath of a breakup to the separation of those all-important feathery appendages (“One wing will never ever fly, dear / Neither yours nor mine, I fear / We can only wave goodbye”).  Again, this type of songwriting may seem worthy of a dismissal at first, but it works in context here.

The fourth track is anything but lighthearted.  Told from the manic perspective of one who has just committed murder (online sources suggest the victim was the narrator’s girlfriend), “Bull Black Nova” is the sonic standout here, being easily the most experimental track on the album.  Spin‘s review of the album suggests that this song is out of place in what is largely a body of traditionally arranged songs, but this is not the case.  After all, what will drive a person to killing another — particularly a loved one — is perhaps the greatest human mystery of all.

Driven by a steady beat and arrangement of electric guitars, this track fittingly evokes the mental hysteria of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.”  Indeed, the mystery dealt with in this song is perhaps best described as how one might handle the aftermath of having committed such a heinous crime.

The first of two acoustic masterpieces, “You and I” prominently features the first duet to be included on a Wilco album.  Accompanied by Leslie Feist, Tweedy presents this moving track with a fittingly subdued instrumental performance by the other members of the band.  Moreover, this song advances the motif of the album.  As Tweedy and Feist sing, “Oh, I don’t need to know / Everything about you / Oh, I don’t want to know / And you don’t need to know / That much about me.”  This song considers the reality that two people may still be strangers, regardless of how close they become.  While that may sound negative, it is turned around in the song as a positive and natural element of any relationship.

Tweedy later goes it alone on “Solitaire,” the eighth track.  This is another acoustic gem highlighted by Tweedy’s understated but heartfelt double-tracked vocals.  Lyrically, this is the perfect example of a simple but powerfully written song.  (Click here to see the Laptop Session this song inspired.)

“You Never Know” is the first single; it comes halfway through the album, proving that Wilco was only warming up.  This song nicely features all of the elements that make this an excellent band: Tweedy’s vocals, Cline’s lead guitar, Sansone’s piano,  Jorgensen’s organ, and the typically strong bass and drums of Stirratt and Kotche, respectively.  What stands out about this track is that it is clearly Wilco in sound and style, yet, as several other reviews have noted, the stylistic touches are strongly reminiscent of one of the best songwriter/guitarists of all time: George Harrison.  It is nearly impossible to listen to “You Never Know” and not hear Harrison’s characteristic flourishes in the mix.  In a recent interview, Tweedy suggested that the similarities were not planned, but that he was pleased to offer an homage.

No other journalist has pointed out that the Hammond organ stylings on “You and I” sound like a reference to Bob Dylan’s “I Believe In You,” so I’ll just throw that one out there, too…

The second half of the album is equally as strong as the first.  “I’ll Fight” (a standout track) and “Sonny Feeling” (highlighted by Cline’s lap steel guitar licks) are a powerful combination, occupying the ninth and tenth slots on the album.  The former is a statement of purpose, evoking Biblical references to drive the point home.  The latter evades an entirely concrete interpretation, but it is clear that the song centers around a pivotal experience in a high school student’s life.  The middle is perhaps the strongest section of this song, as Tweedy sings, “You know it’s true / The other shoe / It waits for you / What can you do? / Remember to show gratitude / The darkest night is nothing new.”

In addition to the aforementioned “Solitaire,” the true highlights of the second half are certainly the two acoustic-based songs “Country Disappeared” and “Everlasting Everything.”  “Country Disappeared” is just about as political as you’ll hear Wilco (in song at least), but it is still best described as poetic and personal.  If “Deeper Down” is a fitting thematic bookend at the opening of the album, then “Everlasting Everything” is the ideal closer.  As Tweedy sings, “Oh I know this might sound sad / But everything goes, both the good and the bad / So it all adds up, and you should be glad / Everlasting love is all you had.”  This is apparently what is to be found after digging “deeper down,” namely the realization that a life driven by love is worthwhile.  With this, Wilco (the album) turns out to be perhaps the most positive release in the Wilco catalog.

As “Everlasting Everything” fades out and “Wilco (the song)” thunders in, listeners will find it difficult to pop the CD out of the player or change the selection on the iPod.  And this is just as a great album should be.  Is Wilco (the album) the perfect record, or even a masterpiece?  The answer is undoubtedly in the negative.  And yet there is something compelling, soothing, passionate, and masterful about it.

This is the story of a band putting out a strong seventh release, continuing to impress after an already impressive career.

“Walt Whitman’s Niece” (Billy Bragg & Wilco Cover)

Originally posted 2008-09-16 11:35:01. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

By Chris Moore:

As promised, I’m back after my second Jack Johnson acoustic cover song (posted on Saturday) to bring you my first installment for “New Bands Week.”  Since I wanted to make sure that I’m pulling my weight around here (and considering that Jim is swiftly adding to a list of at least ten new artists he plans to cover!), I decided to bring not only one but two new bands in one day to the best cover song music blog in the universe!

Okay, so maybe I’m talking up my contribution here, since the song I chose — “Walt Whitman’s Niece” — was recorded as a collaboration between the two artists, songwriter Billy Bragg and alternative rock band Wilco.  But, still… in the spirit of “New Bands Week,” two new bands!

There’s a really interesting story to go along with this cover song.  This is the first track on Billy Bragg and Wilco’s Mermaid Avenue album, a collection of songs based on the lyrics of Woody Guthrie.  Guthrie essentially ended up writing countless songs over his years as a songwriter, many of which he never put to music.  He literally had boxes of them.  I read that Guthrie actually offered them to a young Bob Dylan when Dylan went to visit him in the hospital.  He even made the long trip out to Guthrie’s house, but there was only a babysitter at home and she did not want to let a stranger in.  (Little did she know he would soon be anything BUT a stranger!)  Then, decades later, Billy Bragg and Wilco got their hands on the lyrics, chose their favorites, and wrote music for the words.  The result is an amazing album that I first learned about through my Journalism II teacher, who was also a big Dylan fan.

They came out with a sequel a few years later, simply called Mermaid Avenue Volume II, but it really wasn’t as strong as the first time around.  This is simply one of those moments in rock music, in my opinion, that came down to initial inspiration.  That first album is such a strong, enjoyable, and interesting collection of music.  In fact, I initially wanted to record “Ingrid Bergman” (which I did and stored away for later), but then remembered about “Walt Whitman’s Niece.”  I figured it would be a much stronger choice, as it is the first track on the album, upbeat, and of course, highlighted by a crazy harmonica solo that I could never duplicate.  All in all, a really fun song to sing.  As Jim and I figured out, it was a lot of fun to improv lyrics to the tune!

As a final note, Jim and I saw the latest Woody Allen movie, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, tonight.  Although I’m always a big fan of seeing him in the movies, this was a really interesting film even if he didn’t play an acting role.  I wasn’t sure how I felt about the voiceovers initially, but I really got into the characters and especially the situation.  I think this is one of those movies that will cause viewers to think about their own ideas about love, trust, and what their lives will be like in several decades.  How do you find happiness?  I don’t want to give anything away, so I’ll stop here.

This may be all for today’s post, but don’t forget to rush back tomorrow for another all-new band and another all-new cover song by Jeff Copperthite.  If you haven’t already, you should scroll down the home page and check out Jim and Jeff’s first picks of the New Bands Week.

See you next sesion!

Wilco Summer 2009 SET LIST – Wappingers Falls, NY: Saturday, 7/18/2009

Originally posted 2009-07-18 18:34:39. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

The SET LIST is below…

For a detailed review, CLICK HERE!

By Chris Moore:

Well, it’s only been three days and here we are again, seated in a ballpark waiting for an event to begin. And it won’t be a baseball game…

Wednesday was a phenomenal Bob Dylan concert in New Britain, CT and today, Saturday, is the Wappinger’s Falls, NY stop on the Wilco summer 2009 tour.

As I type, there are a few last minute adjustments being made to the equipment onstage before the opener at 7pm – Conor Oberst & the Mystic Valley Band. I have no idea what they’ll be like, so more to come about their performance soon…

I’ll be posting up-to-the-minute details of the Wilco set list as the songs are played, so check back soon for that. (I’ll do my best to report accurately, but they have quite the variety of covers that have slipped into their set lists in the past. Either way, it’ll be interesting!)

Conor Oberst and company just finished their set. Overall, they were an energetic and entertaining band, but I’m anxiously awaiting my first Wilco concert…

Jeff Tweedy and the boys of Wilco will be onstage any minute now, so stay tuned for the set list updates.

WILCO SET LIST:

1 ) “Wilco (the song)”
2 ) “I’m Always in Love”
3 ) “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”
4 ) “Shot in the Arm”
5 ) “Bull Black Nova”
6 ) “You Are My Face”
7 ) “One Wing”
8 ) “Side with the Seeds”
9 ) “War on War”
10 ) “Deeper Down”
11 ) “Impossible Germany”
12 ) “Far, Far Away”
13 ) “Too Far Apart”
14 ) “Handshake Drugs”
15 ) “Can’t Stand It”
16 ) “Jesus, etc.”
17 ) “Sonny Feeling”
18 ) “Theologians”
19 ) “Hate it Here”
20 ) “Walken”
21 ) “I’m the Man Who Loves You”
22 ) “Hummingbird”

ENCORE 1:

23 ) “Poor Places”
24 ) “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”

ENCORE 2:

25 ) “The Late Greats”
26 ) “You Never Know”
27 ) “Heavy Metal Drummer”
28 ) “Hoodoo Voodoo”
29 ) “I’m a Wheel”

Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” (2002) – The Weekend Review

Originally posted 2009-12-27 23:57:53. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

** This is the fourth in a five part series of music reviews, counting down from the #5 to the #1 albums of the decade, 2000-2009. On January 2nd, 2010, the #1 album will be revealed, along with the complete Weekend Review picks for the Top Thirty Albums of the Decade. **

By Chris Moore:

RATING: 5/5 stars

There are those albums that are easily inserted into categories, labeled by genre.  Then, there are those albums which do not, those veritable square pegs hovering above round holes.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot belongs to the latter.

Being that this is one of the most written-about albums of the decade, there have been just as many genre classifications as there have been reviewers.  Regardless of the fact that much of Wilco was formed from ex-Uncle Tupelo members, it is certainly not alt-country, although the trademark rough edges are present in all the right places.  It is not the country-tinged folk rock of Wilco’s debut release, A.M., although Tweedy’s leads sometimes attain that same wonderful raw quality that was so prominent on their first album.  It is not the acoustic rock of Being There, though the acoustic guitars are still quite prominent in the mixes.

Indeed, Summerteeth, their third album, can now be viewed as the proving grounds and a stepping stone to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot — in a sense, as the Today! to their Pet Sounds, the Highway 61 Revisited to their Blonde on Blonde.

It is the clarity of overall vision and focus, as well as the variety of sounds and styles on this record that makes Yankee Hotel Foxtrot one of the best rock albums of the decade.  In many ways, Wilco’s previous recordings were all leading up to this masterpiece, an album that yielded a slew of alternate takes, arrangements, outtakes, and additional mixes.  They poured all they knew about songwriting, performing, and recording into this album, and that is what is most apparent in the tight, finely crafted tunes, every bit as much as it is evident across the sprawling, chaotic landscapes of songs like the opening track.

It has become somewhat difficult to separate the music of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot from the controversy that surrounded it at the time of its release.  Certainly, when they set out to record their fourth studio album, they couldn’t have predicted the poor reception of the record label that would lead to them being dropped from their contract.  They couldn’t have envisioned breaking ground on the now-standard practice of streaming their album in full before its official release.  They couldn’t have known that the story around the album would sell so many copies and overnight transform their band’s image from a fairly obscure alt-country band to the folk/alternative rock trendsetters that they are known as today.  And yet, all the same, these things came to pass, filmed every step of the way by Sam Jones for the documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco.

Moreso than ever, this is an album that now needs to be taken, at least initially, on its own merits.  Nine years after it was recorded and eight years after the controversy and hype have subsided, we are left with the task of locating Yankee Hotel Foxtrot among the greatest albums of the decade, and perhaps of all-time.

Thankfully, it has stood the test of time.

Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" (2002)

The Weekend Review's pick for the #2 album of the decade, 2000-2009, is Wilco's 2002 release, "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot."

Listening to this album is an entertaining, sobering, and all-around interesting experience from the fade in on track one to the fade out on track eleven.  “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” is, of course, the flagship song of the record, establishing both the tone and the mood for the other ten tracks to come.  On the one hand, it is a song with such a simple chord progression and melody that it could be — and has been — easily translated to a solo acoustic performance.  Still, something is lost without, on the other hand, the reluctant bass lines, synthesized sounds, and haphazard yet steady drums.  The sum total of the instruments and vocals introduces a narrator who sounds decidedly detached, inviting us into a realm where we imagine and remember our saddest moments, the conflicts that have defined our romantic lives.

After the final burst of distortion, the second song, “Kamera,” wastes no time in laying out a much more polished folk-rock sound, describing uncertainty as to “which lies I have been hiding, and which echoes belong.”  Tweedy continues, “I’ve counted out days to see how far I’ve driven in the dark with echoes in my heart.”  It is a pretty song; it is a catchy song.  My only reservation here is lyrically — for instance, why spell the title with a “K” rather than a “C”?  As Robert Christgau seemed to point out in his own review of the album, any major concerns about the album’s quality will most likely be focused around the lyrical quality.  While I think he is, as per usual, deaf to the quality of this excellent album, I will admit that I vacillate as to the meaningfulness of some of the lyrics.

Overall, the album speaks to me, and yet, some of the songs may be found shaky on an individual inspection.

But this should be for you to decide as you listen.

“Radio Cure” is next, bringing the pace down to a crawl, expounding on the effects of distance on love.  It is followed by “War on War,” a protest song of sorts that seems to attack simple-mindedness with simplicity.  If nothing else, Tweedy cries the universal truth that, “You have to learn how to die if you wanna be alive…”  One can suppose that this is not necessarily meant as a commentary on physical violence, but moreso in the context of the romantic relationship in shambles that is described throughout the album.

In “Jesus Etc.” and “Ashes of American Flags,” the lyrics rely on allusions to Christianity and the American dream, respectively.  In the former, the singer attempts to reassure a Christ-like lover who is set on leaving, “last cigarettes” being all she can get before she sets about “turning your orbit around.”  The mournful quality of the latter is unsurpassed, particularly as Tweedy repeats the chorus: “All my lies are only wishes; I know I would die if I could come back new.”  Again, there is the Christian — or perhaps Buddhist — metaphor of a death leading to a rebirth.  We can assume that this relationship being referred to is dying or already dead, and the question, of course, remains: what will be reborn in its place?  The song ends with the singer “saluting” the ashes of American flags, “and all the fallen leaves filling up shopping bags.”

Anyone who has gone through a breakup after a meaningful relationship has undoubtedly undergone this phase of the healing process.

The seventh and eighth tracks sidestep a bit, the first — “Heavy Metal Drummer” — taking a nostalgic and upbeat flashback to memories of past summers filled with rock concerts and parties and the second — “I’m the Man Who Loves You” — coming across as a manic return to the present, the singer declaring, “If I could, you know I would just hold your hand and you’d understand: I’m the man who loves you!”

Subsequently, we learn that the singer’s declaration of love has not had the desired effect.  Indeed, “Pot Kettle Black” is an important transition point on the record as Tweedy sings of coming to terms with the realities of the relationship that exists between these two people.  Its abstract lyrics are no attempt to dodge specificity; rather, this is a great case study for how the mind perceives the breakdown of something so dear.

The final two tracks provide another excellent couplet in this eleven line album.  “Poor Places” establishes itself as an anthem for isolation, with the singer ultimately decreeing, “It’s hot in the poor places tonight; I’m not going outside.”  This is not an entirely unexpected turn of events.  After all, the album has covered a lot of melancholy ground, including what can arguably be construed as failed attempts at jump-starting a broken relationship.

When the final track arrives, it is somewhat of an enigma.  “Reservations” is one of the simplest, saddest, and most sincere love songs in the Wilco catalog.  The refrain, “I’ve got reservations about so many things, but not about you,” can be interpreted in several different ways — as a final attempt at reconciliation, as a statement after having reunited with the person (although there is less evidence for this), or perhaps most directly as parting words.  Judging from the ominous silence that follows, complete with sounds that can only be compared to a violent wind, the final interpretation seems the most likely.

From beginning to end, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is one of those rare albums that connects on both mental and emotional levels, calling on the listener to think in order to deconstruct meaning from the songs and utilizing all the right sounds to convey all the right feelings.  This was the album that singlehandedly led me into a breakup, nursed me through the depression that followed, and brought me back to the love of my life. (“What was I thinking when I let go of you?…”)

As the disclaimers read in those lovely commercials about diet pills, my results may not be typical, but my life is better for having experienced this album.  I hope — and have faith — that this album will have even half the effect on you that it did on me.