Monday, June 24, 2024

The Whole Wilco Part Four: Many Rivers to Cross

After Schmilco, Wilco took another recording hiatus, waiting three years to put out a new record. In the interim Jeff Tweedy was busy with his own solo work, which would inform the work that followed with Wilco. The band's last three records, in keeping with precedent, sound little like each other. From writing these retrospectives on legacy artists I've come to expect a really fallow period. Paul McCartney, Neil Young and Bob Dylan all hit some epic low points in the 80s that lasted for years. Even Bruce Springsteen spent the first half of the 1990s in the wilderness. Wilco has avoided this so far. Perhaps this is the result of record companies no longer expecting fresh product every year and thus allowing Tweedy and co to have more time to craft their work. In any case, it's rare for a group that's been around almost 30 years to keep making new music I listen to out of excitement, rather than obligation. 

Ode to Joy, 2019

This is probably the Wilco album I've listened to the least, and for reasons not entirely reflective of the quality of the record. By the time this album came out my listening habits had fully assimilated to streaming. I listen to full albums less than I used to, and am more likely to throw on a playlist Frankensteined together from the songs I am currently digging. I streamed this album when it came out, but didn't buy it (a first for for a Wilco album), listened a couple of times, and then forgot about it. In the age of streaming this is a common experience for me. It comes from not having the impetus to play full albums over and over again, but also from having so many options. Unlike other sad middle-aged dads, I listen to lots of new stuff, and I almost consider it a duty not to lean on listening to my favorite old artists all the time. 

Like Schmilco, this is an understated affair with some crankiness in the lyrics. It makes me think the album title is some kind of deadpan joke. Wilco has really scaled down the musical pyrotechnics, to the point that it sounds like are intentionally holding back. I felt that with Schmilco and I am feeling it even more with Ode to Joy. Both are definitely vibes albums with the whole worth more than the parts. Nevertheless, I really dig "Love is Everywhere (Beware)" and "Before Us." 

A friend pointed out to me that Ode to Joy came after Tweedy's Warm and Warmer albums. His creativity is getting spread out, and the jury's out to me whether this is giving Tweedy artistic inspiration for Wilco or whether it's watering down his Wilco work. 

Rating: Four Tweedys

Cruel Country, 2022

When I heard that Wilco was going to put out a double-album of more country-inflected music I have to say I was pretty excited. It wasn't because I have been yearing for a return to "Casino Queen" and "Passenger Side," but more because it would means getting to hear something radically different from them. I was not disappointed, and this album broke through my streaming-era allergy to listening to albums in full. I spun it throughout the summer of 2022. The song "Cruel Country" in particular spoke to me, as I listened to it in the aftermath of the Dobbs decision and a mass shooting at a 4th of July parade in suburban Chicago.

To get back to my rivers theory of rock music, Wilco drew more from the roots river on this album than they had since Being There. Listening to it again, however, I noticed that despite the album's title, the music is still mostly grounded in their work since Schmilco. There's the same intimacy, personal approach, and emphasis on mood over hook. There also just happen to be some steel guitars.

I listened to it for this project as I did a bunch of household chores and gardening on a Sunday, which was the perfect accompaniment. Like a lot of Tweedy's recent music, this is unabashadly the work of a middle-aged dad who gets stuck in reflection and worried about the future. Let's just say....I get it. I'm a teacher, which means the summer can be a time of paralyzing mental anguish because my brain is running overtime with less to distract it. I can get into a doom spiral, and two summers ago the gorgeous instrumental coda to "Many Worlds" would snap me out of it. 

I will fully admit that my love of this album is highly subjective. I love country music and am a worried dad so this is catnip to me. It's also a great example of how a non-country band can cut a country album without it being forced, corny, or subpar (Elvis Costello, I'm looking at you!) Like all double albums it has its peaks and valleys, but that's how I like them.

Rating: Four and a half Tweedys

Cousin, 2024

When I heard Wilco's newest had been produced by Cate Le Bon my ears perked up. She cut my favorite album of 2022 (Pompeii) and promised to bring something fresh to the table. Wilco had also been making all of their records themselves, and while artistic control is a good thing, sometimes big artists need someone else to step in and call them on their bullshit. Knowing her work and Wilco's I also knew it would be a good match.

I really like this album, and like Cruel Country I listened to it a lot as an album instead of just cherry-picking my favorite tracks for playlists. For awhile this year it was my morning train commute listening, so I associate it with that uncanny moment of stress and relaxation before the day truly begins. Based on the lyrical themes, that's appropriate. There is a lot of mental anguish here, including a straightforward discussion of whether to continue taking depression medication. The worry about the future of the world evident in the last two albums is pronounced here as well, especially on the harrowing "Ten Dead." 

A big difference here from the albums that preceded Cruel Country is that, like The Whole Love, pop singcraft is higher in the mix along with the experimentation. "Evicted," for example, is a shimmery song with catchy hooks that I've been listening to a lot. "A Bowl and a Pudding" has the repetitive, Jim O"Rourke repeating patterns reminiscent of Wilco's early 2000s apex. The welcome warmth (pun intended) of "Soldier Child" and punkiness of "Cousin" make them favorites on this album as well. 

It's defintely worth your time, and I can't wait to hear these songs live tonight.

Rating: Four and a half Tweedys

So that's it for The Whole Wilco, but I think I saw they have an EP coming. I'm sure I will listen to it the day it comes out. 

Saturday, June 22, 2024

The Whole Wilco Part Three: New Beginnings

After Wilco's miracle run of albums from 1996 to 2004 they waited three years before releasing another studio recording. It came with a new lineup and new sounds, but never would Wilco scale the heights it had once occupied. That's the thing I used to focus on, at least. Nowadays I am more able to appreciate the experimentation and capacity for change here. 

Sky Blue Sky, 2007

This is the first studio album with the lineup of Tweedy, Stirrat, Kotche, Jourgenson, Sansone, and Cline, the same lineup the band has today. I had seen and enjoyed this lineup live, and probably set my expectations for this record too high. Their last two albums had become almost a part of me, and while I thought this was a good record, I didn't think it came close to pantheon status. Is that a ridiculous standard? Probably.

In the ensuing years I've mostly isolated some of my favorite tracks to throw onto playlists. In fact, "Impossible Germany" may be my favorite Wilco song ever. It certainly highlights the virtuosic flair that Nels Cline brings to the proceedings. Listening to this whole album in one go for the first time in years, I am struck by how great his playing is throughout. Sky Blue Sky sounds like the best 70s art rock album I'd never heard before. I still would not put this in the pantheon, but I'm realizing I was far too critical back then.

Rating: Four and a half Tweedys

Wilco, 2009

Releasing a self-titled album this far into a band's career is a real choice. It struck me kinda funny (to quote Bob Dylan) at the time, but now I think I get it. The "new" Wilco lineup is back for this album, but over the passage of time that "new" version has become the band for the majority of its life. The title seems to be saying "This is what Wilco is now, take it or leave it." The album even starts with a song called "Wilco" about the band, pledging to be a shoulder to cry on for the listener. It feels both serious and a tongue-in-cheek joke and I love it. 

When this album came out I played it a lot and it lived in my car for some time. For that reason I was shocked on this relisten to not know as many of the songs as I assumed I would. At the time I thought of this album as a return to songs over musicianship, something I thought the new lineup had unbalanced. It might be that in the interim that I have been listening to more Zappa, jazz, prog rock, and Beefheart, but I missed the musical flourishes of Sky Blue Sky listening to this one. 

When the songs hit, however, they are great. "I Will Fight" is a Wilco fave, along with the title song. When they miss, the misses are more noticeable. "You Never Know" has a slight stab at politics and reassuring the younger generation, but the last nine years make this song sound quaint, and even a wee bit insulting. Even at the time I thought it was a little clunky. 

Nevertheless, it's still a good album. Wilco's never put out a bad one, not something I can say about the other legacy artists I've covered. 

Rating: Four Tweedys

The Whole Love, 2011

This album did not grab me at all when I first heard it, and is probably tied with Ode to Joy for the least listened-to Wilco album for me. Today hearing the opening song again I wondered why my 2011 self had shit for brains. "Art of Almost" kicks things off in an experimental mode, departing from the more straight-ahead sounds of the self-titled album. The 70s art rock touches from Sky Blue Sky are evident here, as well as the new dimensions Nels Cline brings. 

When I first heard this one I definitely gravitated to "The Whole Love" as a favorite song. It has a bright boldness to it, bursting with joy in a way few songs do for a band so studied in the moods of melancholy. On my relisten I enjoyed the song even more. I also found myself connecting with songs I'd overlooked before, like "One Sunday Morning (A Song for Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)" which reminds my favorably of "Muzzle of Bees," and the brooding "Rising Red Lung." I enjoyed "Standing O" back in 2011, and find myself liking it even more now. 

All of this raises a question: why are my evaluations of this set of albums so wildly different than what they were at the time? Some of it has to do with my expectations, which were silly in their demands. Wilco's four albums before these literally changed my life, but that wasn't just about the music. It also had to do with my stage in life. Youth brings emotions to everything, especially music. Wilco was there for me in a transitional time, and it was something I shared with my close friends at the time. As I moved away from that world physically and emotionally, there was no way another Wilco record could ever mean what it once did. Once you hit 30, a part of your soul dies. You start to feel less, which is both a blessing and a curse. Now that I am pushing fifty I can hear this album and really dig it.

Rating: Four and a half Tweedys

A Little Mini-period

So when I was putting this series together, I had a hard time periodizing the records from Wilco's current lineup. I realized after consultation with a friend that the their records fit into three periods, but one of those periods is really short and I didn't feel like inflicting three separate posts on you. SO: I will put two albums together as a kind of middle bridge to Wilco's last period, a caesura if you will. What's a caesura? It's a really fancy word I heard a pompous British academic use at a conference once. Look it up, I know I had to.

Star Wars, 2015

When Wilco released this one digitally I got excited and confused in equal measure. What the hell is going on with that title? Why is it so short?  I was glad to be getting new music after a long four year hiatus at least. (I was unaware of Jeff Tweedy's personal challenges at the time, which would have made me understand things better.) 

When I heard the wild guitar sound at the start I got interested. Remember, in the ensuing years I had become a fan of Zappa and Beefheart and prog and I was ready for it to get weird. This album feels unmoored, a trip into space, both inner and outer. When the album hits "Random Name Generator" there's killer riffs, too. That song is the one I keep going back to the most. 

While your mileage may vary with Star Wars, it does represent an admirable quest for change and new directions. So many musical artists get stuck in a rut, but so far Wilco has refused to merely repeat its past. The Whole Love could've provided an easy template for the band's future work, but Tweedy and gang refused to stick to it, to their credit. 

Rating: Four Tweedys

Schmilco, 2016

I group this album together with Star Wars because they were recorded at the same sessions at Wilco's studio in Chicago. Both albums also feel like detours and digressions from the main road meant to explore different directions without forging a brand new path. While Star Wars is not one of my favorite albums of Wilco's, it revived the interest I had been losing. For that reason I was on top of Schmilco when it came out as if I was back in 2004 again. 

I noticed right away that things were much more personal and stripped-down. The album art implies this is Tweedy exposing his pain to make music his kids can groove to, and maybe it is. The tone is hushed and stripped down, the electric guitars here more for texture than pyrotechnics. Some of the songs don't quite take off, but I consider this one more of a vibes record. It's not exceptional, but it's still worth listening to. "Cry All Day" and "We Aren't the World (Safety Girl)" really grabbed me on this listen. 

Rating: Four Tweedys

After three albums of the new lineup they hit their mark with The Whole Love. After that, they spent some time on the backroads. As we will see in the last installment, Wilco will leave this time of experimentation by boldly shooting off into new directions. 

Friday, June 21, 2024

The Whole Wilco Part Two: The Only Band That Matters

Historically few rock bands underwent a transformation like Wilco's. Starting with Summerteeth they fully moved on from their early sound and entered a realm of daring experimentation. Their fight with their record company made them a cause celebre all while the group was torn apart by personal and creative tension. Out of this maelstrom emerged some of my favorite music ever. 

Now might be the time to explain my "rivers theory" of rock music. The fertile valley of rock music, like Mesopotamia, lies between two mighty rivers. The first river has its sources in the older forms of American music: blues, country, R&B, jazz, and folk. Lots of music floats on this river, including the whole classic rock tradition. The second river has its origins in the Velvet Underground (this is not an exaggeration) and is the river of punk, new wave, and "modern rock." When Wilco began they were very much in the first river, but in this era of the late 90s and early 2000s, they jumped over into the second river (although they had plenty of traces of it already.) Lots of bands change their sound, but they almost never jump rivers. That's part of what made this music so thrilling. 

Summerteeth, 1999

This is the only Wilco album I did not listen to at the time of release. I had really liked Being There, but at this time I was fully immersed in the second river of rock, and had little time for the first. I had no clue that Wilco had migrated over with me. I picked it up after a year of obsessively listening to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and was immediately struck by its uniqueness in the band's oeuvre. More than any other, this is Jay Bennett's record. It turned out that the ass-kicking guitar player also knew his way around a mellotron. (At the time I had a joke based on the SNL "more cowbell" bit where I imagined Bennett in the studio yelling "I have a fever, and the only prescription is more mellotron!) 

I also must admit, this album scared me a bit. "Via Chicago" and "She's A Jar" reference domestic violence in disturbing ways. Those songs and "How to Fight Loneliness" and others were much too accurate evocations of deep depression, something I was fighting at the time. I would save this album for my moments of depression when I could cope by wallowing deeper. I have a clear memory of a really bad day walking under a gray Midwestern sky in winter, listening to "She's a Jar" and feeling like I wasn't alone. 

Listening to it again today I was reminded that there are also plenty of upbeat songs, like "Candyfloss" and "I'm Always in Love." In a subversive mood the album begins with "I Can't Stand It," which melds gorgeously bright pop melodies and sheen with lyrics of existential despair ("No love is random as God's love," "Your prayers will never be answered again," etc.) This song and others have Beach Boys Pet Sounds touches. Wilco was now swimming in rock's second river, but also sidetracking into the tributary of pure pop music. 

Because I first heard this album after I had heard Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and after Jay Bennett left the band, it always makes me wonder what the band would've sounded like had he stayed. Now is maybe the time to mention that I had a chance to meet and have dinner with Jay Bennett. He was the close friend and musical collaborator of one of my friends and was living in the same area at the time. I must admit I was a bit star struck to be in the same room as him. but he was very friendly with me. Not only that, he was hilarious and a great storyteller. I still remember the tale he told me of Ian McLagen trying to get his organ back from Rod Stewart. I could see how someone with such a dominating presence might be seen as a threat if he joined a band with a different leader. In any case, I am sad that he is gone. 

This record still takes my breath away, I just wish it was a little bit shorter.

Rating: Four and a half Tweedys

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, 2002

This is less an album than a totem of my existence as a human being on this planet. That's not a florid exaggeration, it's how much this record means to me. I put it on like I would put on an old sweater. Every note is lodged in my memory and every one speaks to me. 

What's strange is that I was intimately familiar with it already before its official release. The music press kept reporting on how Warner Brothers, Wilco's label, refused to release it for not being mainstream enough. After that, the band put their album out online, quite a new thing to do in 2001. A friend burned it onto a CD (remember doing that?) and I bought the official release the minute it hit the stores out of solidarity with the band giving the corporate music biz the middle finger. Even if the music had not been as great as it was, it was still thrilling to be part of what felt like a rebellion against the overwhelming trend of cultural homogenization. 

From the first bars things are different, and special. Original drummer Ken Coomer had been pushed out for Glenn Kotche, whose innovative rhythm patterns immediately make themselves known. They let you know that this is going to be an experimential album, but "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" also lets you know that this isn't just self-indulgent noodling, there are SONGS here. The drums, droning sounds, and opening lyrics "I am an Americian aquarium drinker/ I assassin down the avenue" combine to form one of the most striking and confident albums openings ever. 

YHF's context matters, too. While the songs were written and recorded before 9/11, the vibe and lyrics spoke to me about the country's situation, especially "Jesus Etc" and "Ashes of American Flags." They got at my feelings of melancholy, confusion, and anxiety in that rotten, awful time. Much like Radiohead's early 2000s records, Wilco had already put their finger on a growing sense of dread about the modern world that the post 9/11 environment would confirm.

But it's not all sad dirges, either. "War on War" has a melancholy cast, but its up-tempo admonition that "You've got to learn how to die/ If you want to be alive" became a kind of personal mantra at this time. I emerged through a pretty dark tunnel of depression between YHF and A Ghost Is Born, and I came to the realization that I really and truly wanted to embrace life, but always with the knowledge it was going to end someday. 

Maybe this album wasn't part of your voyage of personal discovery, but it was for me. Plus, "Heavy Metal Drummer" is the best song ever written about nostalgia. 

Rating: Five Tweedys

A Ghost is Born, 2004

As much as I love Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, sometimes I wonder if I like Ghost even more. From a personnel standpoint, it's a strange record. Jay Bennett is gone, Mikael Jorgensen is in, but Pat Sansone and Nels Cline were not part of the recording. I saw that expanded lineup live the summer this album came out, and it seemed to make Ghost a kind of artifact.

The Krautrock touches via producer Jim O'Rourke are even more pronounced here. I can hear the ghosts of Can and Neu!, especially on "Spiders, Kidsmoke" and "Muzzle of Bees." Those songs, along with "Hummingbird" and "Handshake Drugs" make for a formidable core to this album. Around this solid center there are diversions, like the Neil Young guitar of "At Least That's What You Said" and the drone noise experiment that closes out "Less Than You Think." When the straightforward, anthemic "Late Greats" emerges from the tinny feedback to end the album it's a bit of a shock, albeit a pleasant one. This song, about the great musicians who never make it big, always felt like a bit of a self-commentary. Was this album Wilco's embrace of obscurity? After all, their biggest selling record was one rejected by the label for being too obscure. 

This album also came out right around the time Jeff Tweedy went to rehab. Some songs, like "Hell is Chrome" and "Company in My Back" explore what Neil Young termed a "bad fog of loneliness" in the raw way of Summerteeth. Then again, "Company in My Back" rolls into the exuberant "I'm a Wheel," and "Handshake Drugs" has always radiated a vibe of contentedness to me. Tweedy's line delivery of "If I ever was myself I wasn't that night" is still one of my favorites. 

On the eve of the album's release I wondered if Wilco could sustain its artistic high after Bennett's departure. Turns out they could, and even explore new horizons in the process. 

Rating: Five Tweedys

Kicking Television, 2005

Live its musical ancestors, Wilco was required by the law of rock to release of double live album at some point. They indulged us with some live shows in their native Chicago. It would also be the first album featuring Pat Sansone and Nels Cline and first after Leroy Bach's departure. A Ghost Is Born would be the one Wilco album since AM without a hotshot guitarist in the band. 

I had seen this lineup live in Milwaukee in the summer of 2004, so this album was not much of a revelation to me. That live show really blew me away, and I could see right away the difference Cline's playing brought to the table. I'm periodizing this album with Wilco's trinity of breakthrough records because it's a sort of victory lap, and those songs constitute the bulk of the setlist. 

It's an objectively good album, but I know in my heart I've seen Wilco put on live shows more electrifying than what's here. I had already seen the new lineup before this one came out, so that was not a selling point. Nevertheless, it's worth a listen if you haven't had to privilege to see Wilco in the flesh. 

Rating: Five Tweedys

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

The Whole Wilco Part One: Out of the Ashes

[Editor's Note: I have enjoyed writing these series where I listen to a legacy artist's music album by album and write about them. The readers I care about the most (my friends who for some reason tolerate me) are into them too and so I will keep writing them!]

So far in my catalog-spanning collection of series on different music artists I have been sticking to the Boomers: Dylan, Springsteen, and McCartney. I wasn't going to write another one for awhile, but Wilco is coming to town and I want to see them again. That got me in the mood to relisten to their catalog. There are only a couple of other bands that have ever meant as much to me personally, and since I was there at the start of their career (unlike the other artists I've covered), this will also be an exercise memoir/shameless autobiography. Also, unlike those other series, I have listened to all of their albums already, many many times. This will be less a voyage of discovery and more a look into what one of my favorite acts means to me and why. I know that as a white, educated Gen X dad from the Midwest I am pretty much a walking stereotype when it comes to Wilco fandom, but I really think it's about more than that. 

Also, a quick note: I will only be covering albums with the Wilco name on them. I am planning a couple of appendices, one on Uncle Tupelo, the other consisting of solo and side projects. My reasons are less than scientific; I just wanna hear all of their main records before I see the show and I've only got a week!

Alright, on with the show.

A.M., 1995

Before there was Wilco, there was Uncle Tupelo. I became a fan right at the end when I picked up Anondyne after reading an article about them in Request magazine. Here were a bunch of guys from the small town Midwest who loved both punk and roots music and had decidedly progressive politics. I knew right away that these were my people. I played Anondyne to death, and to this day it takes me right back to the spring of 1994 and my last weeks of high school. 

When Uncle Tupelo broke up and Wilco emerged with Jeff Tweedy and Son Volt under Jay Farrar, the comparisons were inevitable. I bought this album and Son Volt's Trace on the same visit to the record store (in this case a Best Buy in Omaha), and immediately preferred the Son Volt record. I had liked Farrar's songs in Uncle Tupelo better, and still to this day "Tear Stained Eye" from Trace is one of my pantheon songs. 

Once I stopped comparing those two records, and my Wilco fandom deepened with later releases, I returned to A.M. and realized I had missed a lot. It's more uneven than the records that follow, but the gems are truly glittering. "Casino Queen" is a barnstorming, foot-stomping rocker that I had the pleasure of hearing live back in the early 2000s. "Box Full of Letters" shows off Tweedy's punky roots with some gleefully crunchy guitars. "Passenger Side" hits on a traditional country theme (drunk driving) with both humor and melancholy. (When grad school friends get together and play guitars and sing it always gets featured.) There are some lovely ballads too, like John Stirrat's "Just That Simple" and Tweedy's "Blue Eyed Soul." Admittedly, there are also clunkers like "I Thought I Held You." 

Listening to this album in 1995 I figured that Wilco were going to be one of many bands in the alt-country scene, carrying on where Uncle Tupelo left off. At the time my music tastes were starting to move away from roots more into the Bowie-Velvets-punk side and I put the CD aside after a few initial listens, unaware of what was coming next. After their next record no one would be making Son Volt comparisons ever again. 

Rating: Four Tweedys

Being There, 1996

I hadn't given Wilco much thought but bought this CD after 1. seeing the video for "Outtasite (Outta Mind)" and 2. noticing that it sold at a discount because it was a double album priced as a single. I know I sound like Grandpa Simpson right now, but in those pre-streaming days these were real considerations. 

The first seven songs on this album really throw down the gauntlet and announce that the band has grown a lot since their debut. I noticed right away with "Misunderstood" that Wilco's music still had rooty vibes, but was also sounding more experimental. "Far Far Away" gets more country, but has similar themes of small town isolation. In my 20s and 30s when I moved around a lot I would listen to this song as a newcomer in a strange town and feel a little comfort. All of a sudden from this relaxed, contemplative vibe we get two stone cold rockers, "Monday" and the aforementioned "Outtasite (Outta Mind.)" "Monday" sounds like a lost track from early Skynyrd (a big compliment in my book) and "Outtasite" brings in the punky feel of Uncle Tupelo's loudest bangers. After that we get a detour back to the country, and a good one, in "Forget the Flowers." Then comes "Red Eyed and Blue" backed with "I Got You," long a mainstay of the band's live shows and probably the highlight the first time I saw them back in 2002. The first song starts mellow, a rumination ont the rock and roll life that seems to ask if all of the effort and pain is worth it. (Yes, this is a Gen X band in the 90s, folks!) After that laconic reflection comes the stomping of "I Got You," as the band has decided that, nope, getting to rock is worth it! Awake, Lazarus!

The songs that close out the first disc aren't as thrilling, but they are still good. It's important to remember that this album was first envisioned and released as a double, with each disc having a different feel. For the longest time, I listened a lot to the first disc, and far less to the second. At a party in grad school a friend put the second disc on, saying it was his favorite, and I started listening to it differently after. (I will avoid the old man rant about how physical media allows us these moments of discovery.) 

"Sunken Treasure" starts things off on a somber note similar to "Misunderstood" and like it a comment on being "out of tune" with the world. "Kingpin" is a hand-clapping, foot-stomping country trash classic, and one of the rare rockers on the second disc. If the first disc is the interstate, this one is more the backroads. It ends with "Dreamer of My Dreams," a raucous hoedown but also the last full-on country fried song the band would put out under their own name for twenty-five years. 

Although the grunge explosion had happened, by 1996 it was fading and rock music's place in the pop music scene was well on its road to decline. I sometimes listen to this album as the last truly great classic rock record. As "I Got You" reminds us, it was the end of the century.

Rating: Five Tweedys

Mermaid Avenue, 1998 (with Billy Bragg)

I wasn't sure whether to include the Mermaid Avenue albums in this series or not, but I am because they are a kind of swan song for Wilco as a band that could be described as "alt-country." In case you don't know, on these albums Wilco partnered with Brit singer Billy Bragg to craft versions of unrecorded Woody Guthrie songs. In many respects it was a throwback to Uncle Tupelo and Jay Farrar's interest in the politics of the Popular Front era. The combination of Bragg, Wilco, and these Woody lyrics works incredibly well, which made this record a critical darling of the time. "California Stars" became a mainstay of Wilco's live shows and "I Guess I Planted" and "Way Down Yonder in a Minor Key" have become big favorites for me. The irony with this album is that artists often put out covers albums to familiarize themselves with the music that influenced them. In this case Wilco is giving it the old country try one more time before taking on far different musical adventures. 

Rating: Four and a Half Tweedys

Mermaid Avenue Volume 2, 2000 (with Billy Bragg)

This album comes chronologically after Summerteeth, but it was recorded at the time of the first effort with Billy Bragg and fits this era of Wilco's development. (Sometimes the proper chronology is not a literal one when it comes to writing history!) It feels more like a helping of leftovers, but anyone who's eaten their Thanksgiving meal over and over again for a few days after knows that leftovers can be pretty damn good. There are not as many classics here, but I really enjoy "Airline to Heaven." 

Of course, in between the first and second of these albums with Bragg, Wilco took a radical turn. More on that in my next installment.

Rating: Three and a half Tweedys

Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Macca May Part Six: Back to the Future

[Note: I know it's no longer May, but life gets in the way.]

After completing his miracle five album run from 1997 to 2007, McCartney started to slow down a bit. Nevertheless, he still managed to put out two fine albums and one absolutely stellar record, McCartney III. He hasn't put out another record since, and maybe he's decided to go out on a strong note. As fitting as that would be, I'd love to hear some more. I really do now believe that the 21st century represents perhaps his solo best work, or at least the equal of Ram or Band on the Run, the only music that can compete with it. Unlike those milestones, however, Paul has not been following up his recent classics with clunkers. It's just good music all the way down. 

Kisses on the Bottom, 2012

Initially, I wondered if the title was some kind of cheeky joke, but it's the name of an old song about kissing the bottom of a love letter. Instead of early rock and roll as on earlier cover records, this time Macca is tackling old standards. I find it interesting that Dylan recorded a lot of similar cover records around the same time. For men their age, Tin Pan Alley was the sound of their earliest childhood, and also a template for pop songwriting that followed. While Run Devil Run showed that Paul wanted to get raw again, this album is a signal that he wants to do more of his craftsmanship. It's not as exciting, but pleasant enough.

Rating: Three and a half Pauls

New, 2013

In another sign that McCartney was swinging away from rock and rolling and back towards pop territory, he worked with contemporary producers on New. The title and aesthetic imply that this is an album intending to be relevant. Things start with "Save Us," an up-tempo number speaking to a new energy. Despite the newness of this record, McCartney is thinking a lot about the past. It shows up in the music, which often has some quite Beatle-y piano touches, and also in the lyrics of songs like "Early Days." The ruminations on the passing time are certainly reminiscent of Memory Almost Full. Like that album, this is a really good record. 

Rating: Four and a Half Stars

Egypt Station, 2018

Now here's one that came as a complete surprise. For some reason I did not know that this album even existed. That did not give me high hopes, but when I first listened to it I came away invigorated. Once again Paul is working with a producer, something that tends to save him from his worst instincts. As with his last record, the sound is not the rocking of his Flaming Pie era, but here it seems less self-consciously contemporary. It pops, but it's more like indie pop. "I Don't Know" melds these elements perfectly. A lot of the songs have big, snappy beats that you can groove and nod your head to, like "Dominoes." Some of the music is positively inspired, like "Back in Brazil." There's angular beats and bloopy keyboards a la McCartney II, perhaps a sign of where Macca was about to go musically. What I like about the album is this air of experiment, something that I think separates his best solo records from the rest. Because Paul was always seen as the poppy, people-pleasing Beatle folks have forgotten about his more artistic tendencies. In his late career he finally decided to give into that instinct full time. 

Rating: Four and a half Pauls

McCartney III, 2020

I'll just say it right now: I love this record. I had not listened to his recent output when I came out, but I gave it a virtual spin on Spotify because I had always liked McCartney and McCartney II. I was immediately smitten, mostly because I had been ignorant of how good his other 21st century records had been. We had all been in lockdown in 2020, and I was curious what Macca did with his time in that liminal space. Some songs have a ruminating darkness befitting the year of COVD, like "Deep Deep Feeling." Unlike his famous love ballads of the 60s, this is a song about love as a curse, the kind of thing that can break you. 

As with the other albums in the self-titled series, Macca is doing this all himself. When he's in this mode he's most likely to get freaky with it, a la "Temporary Secretary" on McCartney II. What I love is that the songs never go where you predict them. "Find My Way" is delightfully scattershot, for example. Despite the darkness on some songs, this whole thing is a bright blast of the joy of creation. That's something Paul has been able to deliver ever since he shook his mop top and belted "yeah yeah yeah" all those years ago. I don't know if he has another album in him, but dear Lord, I hope he does.

Rating: Five Pauls