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Wednesday, May 23, 2007 03:16 am

Doing it, the old fashioned way

Wilco stops being squirrelly, and gets even better

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Wilco Sky Blue Sky (Nonesuch)
Untitled Document The backlash has landed: Wilco, the little indie band that could, isn’t getting a free pass from the press anymore. Sky Blue Sky, the Chicago outfit’s sixth album, isn’t being panned, exactly, but the response has been lukewarm. Where once the critics cited Kraftwerk, Neu!, and Radiohead, now they invoke Jackson Browne, the Eagles, and — oof! — the Grateful Dead. Why, sounds the anxious refrain, is Wilco going backward? Did Jeff Tweedy’s stint in rehab make him go all soft and jammy? What happened to the avant-leaning, static-celebrating, Krautrock-quoting Midwest abstractionists of yore?
The simple answer is that Wilco was never really that avant-anything. Beneath the migrainous buzz, fridge-magnet profundities, and cred-boosting Jim O’Rourke-isms of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born was a plain old rock band, one that fulfilled the standard rockdude desiderata: shiny hooks, stick-to-your-ribs riffage, and sing-along choruses. The dad-rock vibe so disdained by the indiescenti was never absent from the Wilco formula; it was just lurking under a fashionable layer of drone. After all, there’s a reason that Wilco sells more records than Glenn Branca. It’s telling, I think, that my heretofore Wilco-ambivalent friend Steve describes Sky Blue Sky as the first great album that Wilco has ever made. Steve is one of those old-school geezers who subscribe to the quaint theory that people with recording contracts should know how to play their instruments. Unmoved is he by the art-school cogitations of self-styled saboteurs; he likes the new Wilco record because it sounds like the honest effort of a bunch of guys who are all playing at the same time in the same room, guys with decent record collections who want to make music that sounds good. As Robert Frost said of Edwin Arlington Robinson, Wilco is “content with the old-fashioned way to be new.”
This is not to say, however, that Sky Blue Sky is nothing more than the mellow-to-a-fault ’70s-steeped pastiche that its detractors are saying it is. Granted, its blithe guitars, shuffling rhythms, and house-hubby preoccupations create a certain Laurel Canyon-ish feel, and classic-rock allusions abound — a little Blood on the Tracks in “You Are My Face,” some Abbey Road in “Hate It Here,” a flagrant “Dear Prudence” lift at the end of “Walken.” Although strings swoop in periodically, the album relies heavily on guitar, piano, and vintage organ, with hotshot percussionist Glenn Kotche relegated to click-track duties for long stretches. The newness comes through in the songs’ arrangements, the way a drowsy country/folk jam suddenly erupts into a proggy cadenza, blossoms into a dazzling coda of three-way counterpoint, mutates into a whole new song. Recent addition Nels Cline, who’s not only the best guitarist Wilco has ever had but also one of the finest guitarists alive, is incapable of playing a merely decorative solo; his scintillant leads and velvety textures don’t so much embellish the songs as transform them. Another big change is in Tweedy’s lyrics, which are much less studiously poetic than on recent efforts. In fact, in the opening cut the prosaic veers dangerously close to the vapid: “Maybe you still love me, maybe you don’t/Either you will, or you won’t.” Occasionally, as on the whatever-dude anthem “What Light,” Tweedy wallows in a kind of woolly solipsism: “If you feel like singin’ a song, and you want other people to sing along/Just sing what you feel, don’t let anyone say it’s wrong.” But hokeyness is a hazard of honesty, and there’s something brave in his almost wholesale rejection of the cryptic. He sounds as if he’s relieved to shrug off the ill-fitting bard mantle, as if he’s content to let the sun shine on his own bare skin.

Contact René Spencer Saller at rssaller@core.com.
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