This is the fourth release for On Fillmore - rhythm section duo Glenn Kotche and Darin Gray - a partnership that has gained a great deal of respect in the 10 years since they came up with the idea (at a Meltdown festival in London). Kotche's pedigree is without question, having released compositions for Nonesuch and been part of Chicago's vibrant art-music scene, it also doesn't hurt that he's a member of Wilco. Darin Gray has a great feel for the upright bass - a really beautiful player whose sound compliments Kotche's tuned percussion so perfectly.
As the album started it put me in mind of ECM records where the emphasis is on the spaces between the music, but it soon becomes apparent that those spaces are not going to be left un-filled, as each composition is overlayed with a fairly bewildering array of field recordings, and bird noises (made by Dede Sampaio). I appreciate the intent of this as an element of ambience in the composition, but the overall effect is not a good one because the ambient elements have been pushed very high in the mix - so much that they become intrusive and distracting. Conceptually this sounds like it ought to be very very soothing music - Vibraphone, Upright Bass and tropical bird sounds. In reality it sounds like they recorded this delicate textured music in an aviary at feeding time, or in a studio next to a building site where (oops!) someone forgot to close the window.
This is a real shame because the music is beautiful - if Tom Waits ever abandons his lo-fi junkyard approach and returns to clean recordings, he should get himself on a train to Chicago and have a word with these boys - but that beautiful music is obscured. Surely a much better effect could be had by having a clean version of the tracks released with the listener having the option of opening his or her windows. If you live in the country you'll get bird noises and some fantastic natural reverb. If you live in town, you'll have a symphony of swooshing cars, chatter and rumble, plus you could control the balance between the instruments and the ambience. But it would seem that it's more deliberate than that - On Fillmore want you to hear it this way, with those elements so loud and proud in the mix - in which case I have to declare this one a spoiled idea. There are moments when it sounds exactly as it should - moments where you could lie in the bath listening to this without thinking "I wish someone would shoot those fucking parrots".Read more 2.5 star reviews
Wilco (The Album)
I've got a problem with Wilco.
After being drawn in by their alt country charm through the two Woody Guthrie / Billy Bragg collaborations, my love of the band expanded rapidly. Having missed all the hoo-hah surrounding Yankee Hotel Foxtrot's release, A Ghost Is Born was the first album I was truly anticipating - and with the mid-season signing of Jim O'Rourke it was this album that lifted them into another league for me, blending electronics, beats and guitars into a thrilling rock album of OK Computer-esque proportions.
Problem is, a lot of hardcore Wilco fans seem to see A Ghost Is Born as Wilco's 'Kid A moment' (for better or for worse) and as such the consensus seems to be to consider the band 'back on track' with the seemingly less far-out vibe of their more recent work. Wilco seem like they might agree and appear very comfortable back in their soft shoes, crafting detailed, refined, quality guitar rock.
Their are still touches of mayhem of course and after the well-crafted crowd-pleaser of Wilco (The Song), the album dips into the darkness with Deeper Down, before continuing the path trodden by the best of 2007's Sky Blue Sky - as swirling guitars cram an eight minute epic into the three and a half minutes of One Wing.
Bull Back Nova borrows in part from the pounding keyboards of Kidsmoke to decent effect, before the album begins to sag in the middle - with the saccharine Feist collaboration You And I and the plodding You Never Know. Things pick up with pounding backbone of (the possibly Bueller-inspired) I'll Fight and before you've registered it, the album is over.
Of course, the bottom line is that this is still an excellent album. Now that the pressure of grading it is over, I'm sure it will settle into my most-played list (18 times so far) - and probably surface in my end of year best-ofs, just as Sky Blue Sky. That album was lifted up a major notch following the live tour that supported the album, with many of the songs beefed up and stretched out when re-created by this immensly engaging band and I expect a similar story following August's London show.
Of course, it is entirely possible that it's me with the problem.Read more 4 star reviews
New data coming in from Wilco World:
"The forthcoming and still-untitled next Wilco album is nearing completion. Jim Scott and the band spent the last few weeks mixing in Jim's studio in Valencia, California and here's a list of song titles spied on the reels -- note this is not necessarily complete and not in sequence.
Conscript (aka I'll Fight)
Wilco (the song)
Bull Black Nova
You and I
Rumors and blogs regarding a guest appearance on that last track are, amazingly, quite true. Feist does indeed lend a great vocal to You and I. Other details will emerge in the coming weeks. The release is currently scheduled for late June on Nonesuch."
Plus, an amusing video of Jeff Tweedy on The Colbert Report:
Sky Blue Sky 'Tour Edition' EP
Following the format they have used for a couple of recent albums, Wilco are re-releasing their Sky Blue Sky album (read the original review here) as a 'tour edition', featuring a 5 track bonus disc. Rather than pulling a fast one over the early adopters however, those who have already purchased the album should be able to pop the disc in the computer and access the tracks for download from Wilco World. (Coming soon for UK readers apparently).
Let's Not Get Carried away was already available as a bonus track for iTunes customers and like pub rocker The Thanks I Get, it's less detailed arrangement and performence don't quite fit the same tone as the finished Sky Blue Sky album.
One True Vine was previously issued with the Either Way single and is a more downbeat affair, taking it's cues from 60's Motown and the positive thinking mentality of Wilco hero Bill Fay. It's short and sweet, but makes for the EP's highlight.
The live version of Impossible Germany is a polarised rendition of the album track, with the more downbeat opening section serving to enhance the vitality of the live guitar work, while Hate It Here works well as a question and response jam that could easily have come from a 70's Band album. With the overly serious sound of the album version absent, the instruments play back and forth off each other nicely and again Nels Cline's great guitar work steals the show.
As with the tour edition of A Ghost Is Born, these songs definitely fall into the category of bonus tracks and as such should not be considered in the same context as the album proper - which may have received some relatively luke-warm reviews but certainly works as a cohesive, focused work. Having said that, you won't really be listening to this as a self sufficient work either. It's major success is to serve as a reminder that Wilco are a great live band and Sky Blue Sky is a great album, perhaps unfairly overshadowed by it's elder relatives.
Sky Blue Sky
As I have previous professed, for me Wilco are one of the best bands operating at the moment. Since I first got hold of their Mermaid Avenue collaboration with Billy Bragg, I tracked back and forth through their output, sucking it all up until I had it all. As a relatively late adopter, I had less of the undying love for the "alt.country" end of things, and for me A Ghost Of Born was the ultimate conclusion of where a band like this was going, leaving me to wonder where they would be heading next.
While Kidsmoke, Hell Is Chrome and the other big show-off tracks on A Ghost Of Born steal the show, they also tend to over-shadow some superb numbers that pop up later in the album, such as Theologians, Late Greats or Company In My Back. With sixth studio album Sky Blue Sky things are on a much more even keel, making for a more subtle record that is beautifully crafted and full of hidden treasure.
Forget the Fleetwood Mac comparisons you might have heard, The Band are your homework reference for this album, with superb musicianship pulling from all sides to make an apparently simple track like You Are My Face into a musical masterpiece - winding up from ballad to multi-part guitar duel, or to transform the opener Either Way from a sunny-weather ditty to an all-out majestic finale, complete with a string section. Great talent brings great responsibility however, and unfortunately the album suffers from some of the same pitfalls as The Band's work from Stage Fright onwards - with the undoubtedly excellent musicianship sometimes falling short of the emotion needed for it to engage the listener as A Ghost Is Born did - which I suspect may be down to a Iack of trouble in Wilcoworld at the moment. If only Tweedy could get back on the painkillers.
But fear not, Wilco are still a long way from a Steely Dan's sometimes unapproachable studio tan style. The glib opening line of Impossible Germany ("...unlikely Japan") is quickly forgiven as it morphs off into a six minute guitar monster. And if you do find yourself waiting for that trademark emotional crack in Tweedy's vocals, don't worry - that comes soon enough on title track Sky Blue Sky: "It's good enough for now..."
Man of the match definitely goes to new signing Nels Cllne, who takes the guitar standards of Wilco's previous records to epic new heights. As a former free-wheeling jazz guitarist he has added guitar to projects by Mike Watt, Stephen Perkins' Banyan, Thurston Moore and others - as well as releasing some notable, if meandering solo work (I've seen him live, and had the sore improv jazz buttocks to prove it). Kept on a tight leash by Tweedy's songwriting, which often reins him in, Nels Cline excels - adding a multitude of guitar highlights, from the crisp Stevie Ray Vaughn-esqe solo that rounds off opener Either Way, to the pyrotechnics that take Side With The Seeds from it's deceptively soulful opening to it's barnstorming finale.
Sure, there are a couple of more forgettable tracks, but the power hidden behind the laid back effortlessness of this album will be fully revealed live and I have no doubt that it is only going to get better and better. I'd even go so far as to wager that after seeing this record played live, the track about Jeff cleaning the house (Hate It Here) may be a late favourite. We'll see.
The bottom line is that this is a top-flight band working at the top of their game. On the surface it may seem to have the stumbling style of fan favourite Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but when listened to next that album it is a far more complex affair. While it might not have the more overt scene-stealing sonic theatrics of the Jim O'Rourke influenced A Ghost Is Born, beneath the surface there are more than a few nods in that direction - notably on the fantastic closing track On And On And On, where the guitar is pipped to the post at the final hurdle by Mikael Jorgensen's keyboards. His Garth Hudson-style Hammond organ adds a steady stream of quality input throughout the album, but on On And On And On it is thrust into the limelight and carries the album home, bringing it back from a minor lull to finish magnificently.
This is a superbly rich record, taking the huge range of previous Wilco output and creaming off the best of all their albums and shaping it into a rich and polished career overview. There is a fluidity, solidity and cohesiveness here that make it an accomplished delight.
At this weeks Nashiville show Jeff Tweedy announced that the new Wilco album is called Sky Blue Sky and will be out on Nonesuch on May 15th.
You can hear new song The Thanks I Get on their MySpace page, and see a video of the track live at Wilco World.
Our favourite wandering front man Jeff Tweedy has found time to squeeze in one-more side project before really knuckling down to give us what we really want - a new Wilco album.
"Nonesuch Records will release Sunken Treasure: Live in the Pacific Northwest, a performance DVD by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, on October 24. The disc includes performances and conversations gathered over five nights on Tweedy's February 2006 solo acoustic tour, with footage from concerts at Seattle's Moore Theater, Portland's Crystal Ballroom, Eugene's McDonald Theater, Arcata's Humboldt State University, and The Fillmore in San Francisco. The film was directed by Christoph Green and Fugazi's Brendan Canty, the creators of the documentary series Burn to Shine."