Wednesday, May 16, 2007

On Sky Blue Sky by Wilco, part one

Can you hear it? I can hear it. It’s the sound of jaded, cynical, bloodthirsty critics laying the lash to the back of Jeff Tweedy and Wilco. Whoopah!

Can you hear it? I can hear it. Tweedy asked for it. They were all prepared for a deconstructed, noisy, messy album of abstractions both lyrical and musical. What was he thinking making a straightforward, mature, polished record, defying expectations yet again? Whoopah!

Can you hear it? I can hear it. Jeff pretends it doesn’t hurt. "People seem to be disappointed with every record we've ever made.” He makes jokes. “You know what the crazy thing is there are some of the same people who've stuck around to be disappointed each time. It's really unique. Wilco has fans that stick around to be really pissed off." But it’s got to hurt. Whoopah!

Can you feel it? I can feel it.

The long-time Wilco-haters jump out from behind the bushes and get the first shots in, smiles and smirks all around, they know they’re not alone this time. They have him for sure.

The sneakiest ones offer water and fill the cup with vinegar. Paul Isaacs of Eye Weekly is one of them. “Take a listen to the second track, ‘You Are My Face,’ when Nels Cline's oddball Steely Dan-goes-Neil Young guitar solo kicks in at around one and a half minutes. That's the surprising but thoroughly welcome sound of Wilco doing something interesting for a change. Enjoy it while it lasts.” Nels says, “That’s a Jeff solo,” but Isaacs obviously isn’t listening.

“To all the people who like this band: Fuck you!” someone from Vice shouts. No one pays attention.

But here come the backstabbers. Some of them deny ever knowing the band at all. “Sky Blue Sky nakedly exposes the dad-rock gene Wilco has always carried but courageously attempted to disguise,” Rob Mitchum says, prodding with his Pitchfork.

Some of them express feelings of betrayal and sadness. “Anyone who thought Wilco were interested in the future of Americana will be profoundly disappointed,” says The Guardian’s Dorian Lynsky.

Some, like Adrian Pannett at Delusions of Adequacy, tell us we’ve all been fooled – and he knew it all along. “It was hard not to smell the hype and dismiss the cynical feeling that Jeff Tweedy and co. were merely going through a mid-career chameleon phase to keep themselves and the critical intelligentsia interested, whilst the Americana boom turned to slump after the turn of the Millennium,”

Ian Cohen of Stylus just shouts dirty words. “70s!” “Jackson Browne!” “Starbucks!” “California AM gold!” “The Grateful Dead!”
When Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly come to Wilco’s defense, the lashers laugh. They don’t need to say anything else.

The true believers, meanwhile, trudge on, preaching the word to all who will hear it. Michael Metivier of PopMatters stands tallest among them. “I can understand a lot of the present and future complaints with Sky Blue Sky, because at various points I’ve shared them: the album is too slick, oddly unexperimental, straightforward, sentimental, embarrassingly direct. But lately I’ve had to face the awkward truth that despite my initial misgivings, I’ve listened to the album more than any other released in 2007 thus far, and there’s no stopping in sight.”

Though the voices of the lashers may be the loudest and their positions of power the highest, they are outnumbered.

Some side with the leaves. Some side with the seeds.

Maybe the sun will shine today. The clouds will fall away.

With the sky blue sky, this rotten time wouldn’t seem so bad to me now.

On and on and on, we’ll stay together yet. On and on and on, what’s next?

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

On blue and green cash machines

Ever since online distribution drove sales of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to the point where it became their best-selling album, Wilco have never been shy about giving their music away for free on the web. So it’s not surprising that everyone and their father has already heard the band’s new album, Sky Blue Sky. Nevertheless, today marks the official release of their sixth full-length studio recording and to celebrate, Like Handclaps and Bacon., Tomorrow Never Knows and Extended Drum Solo are collaborating in a “Best of Wilco” debate. We’ve each spent the past month or so deliberating over which tracks to include and which to painfully cut, and today our choices are finally revealed. Dedicated to all the American aquarium drinkers whose goal in life is to be an echo.

Pure Bug Beauty: Marco’s Wilco Mix

1. I’m the Man Who Loves You, from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot - 3:58
2. I’m Always in Love, from Summerteeth - 3:41
3. Monday, from Being There - 3:33
4. Hate It Here, from Sky Blue Sky - 4:33
5. Company in My Back, from A Ghost Is Born - 3:46
6. Heavy Metal Drummer, from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot - 3:08
7. Venus Stop the Train, fromYHF Demos - 4:29
8. Side With The Seeds, from Sky Blue Sky - 4:16
9. California Stars, from Mermaid Avenue - 4:57
10. What’s the World Got in Store, from Being There - 3:09
11. A Shot in the Arm, from Summerteeth - 4:19
12. Misunderstood, from Kicking Television: Live in Chicago - 6:08
13. I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot - 6:58

There are a thousand different ways to make a Wilco mix. I’ve done my best to include something to represent all the elements that make them such a special band – lyricism, musicianship, songcraft, deconstruction, reconstruction, soul, country, rock and roll, pop, ballads, barnstormers. Even Jay Bennet.

Like a lot of people, I entered Wilcoworld through Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, slowly, carefully, not fully understanding what was happening until I was too far in to ever find my way out. I’ve tried to return the debt I owe to YHF by giving it prominence on this mix. One thing I particularly love about that record is the way repeated melodies, lyrics, themes are sprinkled throughout, foreshadowed briefly before dissolving into white noise. I have attempted to replicate that effect here by opening with “I’m the Man Who Loves You” and closing with “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” which reprises the chorus. I also included “Heavy Metal Drummer,” because it proves Jeff Tweedy can write catchy pop songs whenever feels so inclined, and the quiet, sad “Venus Stop the Train” from the YHF demos to showcase Tweedy the balladeer.

At one point I joked about using Sky Blue Sky in its entirety, a bit of beer-soaked hyperbole to flaunt my fondness for the near-perfect new record. I somehow managed to whittle it down to the two tracks that showcase Tweedy’s newly discovered upper vocal range -- Tweedy soul singin’ -- a little bit of McCartney from this very Lennon-esque figure.

Elsewhere, for the most part, I’ve gone with the band’s most straightforward and direct, song-ish songs, from the barroom stomp of “Monday” to the keyboard-drenched pop of “I’m Always in Love” and “Shot in the Arm,” with “What’s the World Got in Store” and the Woody Guthrie-penned “California Stars” here to accent Tweedy’s country roots. The live version of “Misunderstood,” meanwhile, is by far the most intense, scary thing this band has put on a record. It may just be the best of the lot.