Monday, July 11, 2011

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob:
Week 114 - Wilco

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

There's a fine line between subtle and dull, between the album that's a "grower," and the album that really isn't worth a second listen. The problem is that it's often hard to identify the difference right away. Some albums I'm convinced don't have that much to hide yield surprises in the weeks and months down the road, while others that I'm convinced will grow on me actually turn out to be kind of bore. 

Wilco straddled the line between the two this week, and even now I'm still not sure which side is going to win out. I think I've written before how my "artist-a-week" schedule frequently rewards the novel, the new, and the easy-to-like. Those bands don't knock my socks off right away are often harder to appreciate by the end of the week, which is not to say that I won't grow to love them. But I ended up being less enthralled with, say, Being There, and more intrigued. 

This isn't a bad thing. Nearly all the classical music I listen to takes a few spins in order for me to grasp what's going on. It's the difference between love at first sight, and slowly developing a crush. Some music is there to wow you from the very beginning, and the minute it comes on you can't believe what you're hearing. Others (possibly like Wilco) only reveal their depth in time. 

This is a long way of saying that Wilco kind of sort of bored me a little bit this week - not bored in a soporific way, but bored in the "this is it?" manner, the disappointment of too-high expectations. The music is solid, and the intersection of country music and the tropes of indie rock is frequently inspired. But every Wilco album seemed to fly over my head, rather than grabbing hold of me. I felt like I was looking at a beautiful bit of scenery through a window, rather than being at the actual location. 

Time will tell if further intricacies reveal themselves, or if Wilco is just not for me. I'm interested enough that I don't want to dismiss the band out of hand, but I can't really give an endorsement either. 

WEEK 114


WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: My local library has both Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Sky Blue Sky, and I had checked out both these albums in the past and given them a listen, but I couldn't have listened to either one more than once or twice. 

MY LISTENING: I listened to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002) every day this week. I also listened to Summerteeth (1999) three times, A Ghost Is Born (2004) twice, and Being There (1996) and Sky Blue Sky (2007) once each. 

WHAT I LIKED: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is frequently lauded as one of the best albums of the last decade, and Wilco's aesthetic high-water mark. Part of me secretly thinks that this is just because the album has a great story behind it, filled with tales of sweat and tears and broken record contracts. But even behind all the fuss and hype, it's still a damn good album, and might have the least amount of filler out of any Wilco album I listened to this week. Most of their albums sound content and relaxed, but there's a certain sense of melancholy combined with the mellow on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot that conjures a unique kind of aura. "Jesus, Etc." is a good example of this kind of song. Other songs are even eerier - "Ashes of American Flags" is a downright chilling track, and the lyrics of "Poor Places" are even darker than the chaos that the music builds to.

But not all Wilco is dark - even Yankee Hotel Foxtrot has the fun "Heavy Metal Drummer." And Summerteeth has some great poppy stuff, and at some points during this week I liked this lighter stuff on this album over the heavier tracks. The fact that Summerteeth is pretty piano-heavy is a plus in my book - "Can't Stand It" is a great opener, with its bubbly hooks belying the lyrics ("Your prayers will never be answered again"), and the cumbersomely-named "Nothing'severgonnastandinmyway (Again)" is a good song to put you in a good mood, replete with hand claps and a sunny chorus.

Finally, while a lot of Wilco's later albums veer into meandering guitar solos a little too much, there's still a few good tracks to be found - the solo that caps off "At Least That's What You Said" is excellent, and the instrumental solos on "Impossible Germany" are far more enjoyable than the actual song. 


As you probably gathered above, a lot of Wilco's stuff was just a little too easygoing for my tastes. If Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot are the apex of the band's career, than what came before seems like country without kick, and what came after sounds like a little too comfortable with their own sound. None of it is bad, but listening to a lot of this relentlessly made it all blend together, and I was bored more than a few times by the end of the week. 

The post-Yankee Hotel Foxtrot albums are often repetitive. On A Ghost Is Born, "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" is a song that doesn't need to be ten minutes long, but it relentlessly chugs along nonetheless, without enough material to fill up its structure. "Hell is Chrome" is dreadfully dull, and "Less Than You Think" is sleep-inducing even before it descends into squeaks and drones. Sky Blue Sky also has more dull songs than good ones - the album is a bit too laid back for its own good. The title track might have worked better if the whole album hadn't sounded like this. 

Being There is an album I'm not quite prepared to judge, but it left me a little disappointed the single time I heard it. This is the band in their "alt-country" phase, and alt-country has always been a genre of which I've been somewhat suspicious - it seems to often just be country music for fans who don't want to be associated with country music. There's a few good tracks ("Kingpin"), but they're again outweighed by the unremarkable - "Say You Miss Me," or "Someone Else's Song." Maybe I shouldn't have crammed a double album into my listening schedule at the end of the week, but maybe it shouldn't have been a double album to begin with. 

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: Wilco's latest album, simply titled Wilco (The Album) (2009) might be worth checking out, but I'm more intrigued by Jeff Tweedy's previous incarnation as the alt-country group Uncle Tupelo. Maybe it's because I've met a few people who swear up and down that Uncle Tupelo is better than anything Wilco's ever done, but I'm curious. 

BEST SONG YOU'VE HEARD: "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart"