Wilco

Rust Is Just Right’s Best Albums of 2019

Today is April 15, and though circumstances are not what they usually are for this time of year, we here at Rust Is Just Right have decided to brighten your spirits a bit by following tradition and releasing our Best Albums of the Year list.  We follow this unusual schedule for a few reasons: 1) It allows some of the albums that are released at the end of the calendar year to get some recognition, since they usually get swallowed up in the attention of the flurry of year-end lists and 2) We get the chance to analyze other lists to pick up on albums that somehow escaped our attention during the course of the year.  Unlike other years, however, we do not recommend spending your stimulus money on these albums, though if you have money to spare consider different ways of supporting your favorite musicians directly.

The process that is used to determine this list is highly rigorous and hardly scientific.  However, we are still in the process of attempting to patent and trademark The Process, which if you may recall, is simply tallying up the play counts on iTunes for each album.  It has served us well in years past, and a quick glance at our list this year proves that it has worked once again.

Note: Though the list is a Top 10, there are more albums than slots, because we don’t like breaking ties for the same play count.  If you’re really intent on focusing on only 10, I guess take the 10 highest performing albums from the list, but you really shouldn’t limit yourself like that if you can help it.

10. Danny Brown – uknowhatimsayin¿; Foals – Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost–Part 2; Jay Som – Anak Ko; Tyler, the Creator – IGOR; Wilco – Ode to Joy (5 plays)

The mood on Danny Brown’s latest was a bit lighter than his previous album Atrocity Exhibition, but the hooks weren’t quite as memorable this time around.  The second half of the ambitious new work from Foals rocked harder than the first from start to finish, with the fiery “The Runner” and the epic “Neptune” as clear standouts, but the lack of variation made it suffer in comparison.  Jay Som provided some of the best lo-fi indie rock of the year, with nifty and inventive melodies (like the hook in “Devotion”).  Tyler and Wilco both continued the path of their most recent releases to dial it down a notch, both to pleasant results.

9. Big K.R.I.T. – K.R.I.T. Iz Here; Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Bandana; Maxo Kream – Brandon Banks (6 plays)

K.R.I.T. followed up RIJR favorite 4eva Is a Mighty Long Time with a solid effort, but most of the best tracks were already released on EPs the previous year.  Bandana mixed fun coke rap with incisive political cracks and Madlib’s production was in fine form.  Maxo Kream showed off one of the most infectious flows of 2019, which made it easy to revisit the album again and again.

8. Beck – Hyperspace; Operators – Radiant Dawn; Titus Andronicus – An Obelisk (7 plays)

Beck continued to operate in “fun” mode like his previous album Colors, but this time the mood is slightly more relaxed, if a bit sedate.  It’s no surprise that we here at RIJR would love whatever project Dan Boeckner (Da Gawd) is working on at the moment, and we were glad to see him return to the synthpop of Operators.  While we were bigger fans of Patrick Stickles’s foray into more “acoustic” songs with A Productive Cough, we were not going to stop him from lashing out and rocking out once again with the furious An Obelisk.

7. Denzel Curry – ZUU; Mannequin Pussy – Patience (8 plays)

We initially were skeptical of Denzel Curry, but his fiery cover of “Bulls on Parade” converted us into fans, and Curry keeps the energy up on the raucous ZUU.  One shouldn’t assume that Mannequin Pussy is our (by now) token female garage rock choice, because the group showed off chops and ambition that far outstrip that kind of pigeonholing.

6. DIIV – Deceiver; Orville Peck – Pony (9 plays)

Considering Slowdive grabbed the top spot a couple of years ago and My Bloody Valentine’s previous high ranking when they returned before that, it should not be a surprise to find a shoegaze album on the list.  The shock is from DIIV accomplishing the feat–sure, their bouncy, surf-style jangle music skirted around the genre, but we couldn’t have expected them to recreate some of the most unique sounds from the legends of the genre and find cool new ways to use them.  Of course, longtime readers are probably more surprised to see a country album this high up on our list, but Orville is no ordinary cowboy.  However, if there were more artists that could croon like Roy Orbison and back it with gorgeous spare guitar, then maybe we would see more representation from that genre on this list in the future.

5. Foals – Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost–Part 1 (10 plays)

We got a sense of the scope of the ambitions Foals had with their first release of the year, and honestly the album could have been fine as a stand-alone.  Not as heavy as their recent efforts, but the band compensated by experimenting with different instruments and tones while also focusing on finding new grooves.  It may have been a little bit more difficult to get into at first, but the efforts pay off.

4. The National – I Am Easy to Find (11 plays)

Oh wow, what a surprise–RIJR loves an album from The National!  However, the relatively low placement may throw some of our loyal readers for a loop.  Much like the rest of their catalog, it takes several listens for I Am Easy to Find to get nested and settled in your head, but again like the rest of their catalog, the effort is worth it.  The inclusion of guest vocals from a variety of women helps the album stand out in their discography, and their contributions provide an excellent counterpoint to Berninger’s sonorous baritone.  In the end, a sagging middle section blunts the momentum of an otherwise excellent addition to the band’s discography, but we guarantee you will love hearing these songs live.

3. Purple Mountains – Purple Mountains (12 plays)

We never got the chance to dive into the excellent work of the Silver Jews, but that was beginning to change with the release of David Berman’s new project Purple Mountains.  We once again had his trademark imagery and wordplay, but this time with a fuller and more expansive backing band.  Unfortunately the album was forever marked by Berman’s subsequent suicide a few weeks after its release, and it remains almost impossible to listen to this beautiful masterpiece without that knowledge hanging in the air.  Still, David was up front and blunt about his struggles, and we are all the better for him describing them to us in such vivid detail.  Somehow, lines like “All the suffering gets done by the ones we leave behind” become even more poignant with every passing day.

2. Bon Iver  – i,i (14 plays)

This was the year we became full-fledged acolytes to the Bon Iver experience and are ready to spread the gospel of Justin Vernon and Co.’s genius.  Their latest can best be described as a synthesis of their previous work–you have the experimentalist aspects of 22, A Million mixed with the 80s soft jazz/synth sounds of bon iver, bon iver with the classic falsetto seen in For Emma, Forever Ago.  The ability of the group to use a cut-and-paste approach (and then recreate them live) continues to amaze us, and has led to some incredible results.

1. Sharon Van Etten – Remind Me Tomorrow (16 plays)

We have long been champions of Sharon Van Etten, and we were immensely overjoyed to see her put together one of the finest albums top-to-bottom of recent years, followed by tours that saw her playing far bigger venues than ever before (moving up from the cozy confines of the Doug Fir to selling out the Crystal Ballroom is quite the jump, which was quickly followed up by opening for Bon Iver on their arena tour).  The music may have shifted from traditional guitar-based singer-songwriter styles to a more electronics-heavy approach, but none of the magic was lost.  Remind Me Tomorrow is an incredibly dense and layered record, and listeners will pick out wonderful new details each time through.  But what still remains is Sharon’s incredible voice, as well as her captivating and exemplary lyrics, wringing out incredible emotion from every note.  Just about every song deserves its own full-post write-up, but we’ll leave you with our pick for song of the year, “Seventeen”.

Best of the Rest: Other Highlights of 2016

Even with our expanded Best-Of list courtesy of The Process, there were still a ton of great albums released last year that were worthy of recognition.  Since we here at Rust Is Just Right are big believers in spreading all good music, we’re going to put a spotlight on some other great records that you may have overlooked from the past year.

YG – Still Brazy

This would be a memorable album even if it didn’t include the future national anthem of the United States, “FDT.”

Wilco – Schmilco

A delicate album that seems tossed-off now, but future Wilco fans will enjoy as a secret gem.

Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth

The token country album, but its status as one that even indie kids would enjoy is earned, even beyond the touching cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom.”

PJ Harvey – The Hope Six Demolition Project

Forgotten too soon (or worse, seen as a disappointment), this was a strong album from one of rock’s most consistent artists.

Nothing – Tired of Tomorrow

It didn’t measure up to their debut, but there’s still gold in their shoegaze-meets-hard rock sound.

The Last Shadow Puppets – Everything You’ve Come To Expect

Not quite as strong as their debut, but it was a treat to see Alex Turner’s side-project return once again

Gojira – Magma

I saw these guys open up for Mastodon, and instantly became a fan.

DIIV – Is The Is Are

They pretty much play only one song, but it’s a good one.

Death Grips – Bottomless Pit

Just when it seemed like the creative well was running dry, Death Grips find new nuance in their abrasive sound.

David Bowie – Blackstar

Goddamn, who knew he had this in his backpocket the entire time?  Bowie was still capable of musical surprises, like this futuro-jazz album, up until the end.

Dame D.O.L.L.A. – The Letter O

Damian Lillard is easily the best rapper in NBA history (and in all of professional sports), but really his talent is better than everything that sentence implies.

Clipping. – Splendor and Misery

Daveed Diggs got mass recognition for his role in “Hamilton,” but a lot of fans would prefer he stick to his day job.  A great sci-fi hip-hop concept album.

Bleached – Welcome the Worms

One of the strongest garage rock albums during the current wave of the genre.

Also Worthy of Praise

Yuck – Stranger Things, Band of Horses – Why Are You OK, Wire – Nocturnal Koreans, Banks & Steelz – Anything But Words, Joy Formidable – Hitch

All Albums That Were Considered

In the interests of full disclosure, here are all the other albums that we listened to last year, in full.  Most of these were quite good and worthy of repeated listens, but they just could not crack the previous lists.

The Men – Devil Music, Kanye West – The Life of Pablo, Beyonce – Lemonade, Frank Ocean – Blonde, Red Fang – Only Ghosts, Teenage Fanclub – Here, Anderson .Paak – Malibu, Beach Slang – A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings, Tim Hecker – Love Streams, Adrian Younge – Something About April II, A Giant Dog – Pile, Walter Martin – Arts & Leisure, Andrew Bird – Are You Serious, Bloc Party – Hymns, Holy Fuck – Congrats, Pixies – Head Carrier, Yung – A Youthful Dream, Dandy Warhols – Distortland, Pinegrove – Cardinal, of Montreal – Innocence Reaches, Savages – Adore Life, Hot Hot Heat – Hot Hot Heat, DJ Shadow – The Mountain Will Fall, Deerhoof – The Magic, Woods – City Sun Eater in the River of Light, Tindersticks – The Waiting Room, White Lung – Paradise, Childish Gambino – “Awaken, My Love!”

Rust Is Just Right’s Best Albums of 2015

Today is April 18, and while the rest of the nation celebrates Tax Day (an extra three days later this year), we here at Rust Is Just Right choose this occasion to release our Best Albums of the Year list.  We follow this unusual schedule for a few reasons: 1) It allows some of the albums that are released at the end of the calendar year to get some recognition, since they usually get swallowed up in the attention of the flurry of year-end lists; 2) We get the chance to analyze other lists to pick up on albums that somehow escaped our attention during the course of the year; and 3) It provides a handy consumer guide for people to focus where to spend their tax refund.

The process that is used to determine this list is highly rigorous and hardly scientific.  However, we are still in the process of attempting to patent and trademark The Process, which if you may recall, is simply tallying up the play counts on iTunes for each album.  It has served us well in years past, and a quick glance at our list this year proves that it has worked once again.

Note: Though the list is a Top 10, there are more albums than slots, because we don’t like breaking ties for the same play count.  If you’re really intent on focusing on only 10, I guess take the 10 highest performing albums from the list, but you really shouldn’t limit yourself like that if you can help it.  Also, we have reviews for nearly all of these albums, so for those of you seeking a more detailed analysis all you need to do is click the appropriate tag above.

10. Deaf Wish – Pain; Disasterpeace – It Follows (Score); EL VY – Return to the Moon; HEALTH – Death Magic; Speedy Ortiz – Foil Deer; Tobias Jesso Jr. – Goon (7 plays)

A very interesting mix at the bottom of the list, including our token electronic choice as well as our first pick of a film score in this site’s history.  Deaf Wish broke through with one of the best noise-rock albums of the year, showing a surprising amount of depth for such a narrow niche, and EL VY proved that side-projects don’t have to be boring.  The debut album from Tobias Jesso Jr. is the star of this particular slot, as Goon shows that the world may have found a true heir to the rich musical legacy of Harry Nilsson.

9. Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment – Surf; Earl Sweatshirt – I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside; Titus Andronicus – The Most Lamentable Tragedy; Vaadat Charigim – Sinking as a Stone; White Reaper – White Reaper Does It Again; Wilco – Star Wars (8 plays)

Another eclectic group at the number nine slot–there’s the ambitious rock opera from Titus Andronicus sharing space with the keep-it-simple garage rock of White Reaper, the joyous jazz-inflected Surf project featuring the exuberant Chance the Rapper sliding up next to the brooding and intense personal meditations of Earl Sweatshirt, and the veteran purveyors of Americana in Wilco sitting comfortably by the Israeli shoegaze group Vaadat Charigim.

8. Blur – The Magic Whip; BADBADNOTGOOD & Ghostface Killah – Sour Soul; Ghostface Killah – Twelve Reasons to Die II; Joanna Gruesome – Peanut Butter; Low – Ones and Sixes; Waxahatchee – Ivy Tripp (9 plays)

Most people seem to have forgotten that not only did Blur come back this year, but they did so with a brilliant album that recalls their peak during the mid-90’s BritPop era, with the group showing that they learned a few things during their downtime.  Similarly, Low once again suffers through the Spoon Curse of being consistently great, with little love being shown for their latest excellent release.  Waxahatchee broadened her sound to great results this year, while Joanna Gruesome solidified their style.  But it is Ghostface who deserves special recognition this year for releasing two separate fantastic records this year.

7. Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color; Foals – What Went Down; Ought – Sun Coming Down; Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love; Viet Cong – Viet Cong (10 plays)

We are glad to welcome back Sleater-Kinney into our lives, as No Cities to Love fits in comfortably with the rest of the other great punk records in their back catalog.  Viet Cong’s debut album and Ought’s second record were challenging post-punk works, but there were enough intriguing elements to be found in both to inspire continued listening.  Alabama Shakes improved immensely from their debut album, showing off a broader range than what had been expected from their previous blues-rock groove.  However, we once again wait for Foals to break through into the mainstream, even though they did their part by releasing this great arena-ready album.

6. Beach Slang – Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us; Modest Mouse – Strangers to Ourselves; Protomartyr – The Agent Intellect (11 plays) 

A lot of people may be surprised by the high ranking of the new Modest Mouse album, but we feel that there was enough on this sprawling effort to reward repeated listens.  While it may not appear as seamless as classics like The Lonesome Crowded West and The Moon & Antarctica, there are several tracks that different eras of fans can enjoy–even the notorious “Pistol” gets better each time you hear it.  Meanwhile, Protomartyr’s brooding post-punk serves as a great contrast to Beach Slang’s exuberant beer-soaked punk.

5. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly (12 plays) 

A worthy recipient of many accolades this past year, Kendrick Lamar’s magnum opus brilliantly pushes the boundaries of what many thought hip-hop could do.  It is often a difficult and uncompromising listen, but there are still many joys to be found throughout the album.

4. Bully – Feels Like; Royal Headache – High (13 plays) 

Both of these records are thrilling half-hours-of-power, and frankly I am wondering why they did not receive more publicity.  There were few albums as fun as this duo.

3. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress; Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell (14 plays) 

Amazingly enough, Godspeed You! Black Emperor seem to be improving with each new release, with Asunder being possibly their most accessible work yet.  There were few moments as powerful as the climax of “Peasantry or ‘Light! Inside of Light!” or the bombastic ending of “Piss Crowns are Trebled”.  At the other end of the spectrum, Sufjan Stevens may have finally made us converts with the quietly devastating and deeply personal Carrie & Lowell.

2. Deafheaven – New Bermuda (16 plays)  

Deafheaven successfully met the challenge of following up their genre-bending breakthrough album Sunbather, returning with the powerful, if more conventional, New Bermuda.  However, the amazing thing about this album is that not only does it stand on its own, it somehow enhances their previous work; each listen of New Bermuda inspires an additional listen of Sunbather, and somehow that album gets better every time we hear it.  Still, New Bermuda stands on its own as a brilliant album, with each of its five tracks jockeying for position as best song on the record.

1. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear (17 plays) 

We had a feeling at the beginning of last year that Father John Misty would place high in our list, but even we were surprised that our favorite shaman ended up in the top slot.  I Love You, Honeybear is a gorgeously lush record, filled with swelling strings and ebullient horns, but there is a dark undercurrent lurking below much of the album.  The record works on both a superficial level and with a more critical approach, which helps explain its surprising ranking.  But in the end, it is just a damn good record, and we cannot wait to see one of modern rock’s great showman return to Oregon later this year.

Catching Up On The Week (Aug. 28 Edition)

A few #longreads for your perusal as you relax this weekend…

Now that you have read our extensive look at the discography of Wilco, be sure to read Jeff Tweedy’s interview with Rolling Stone talking about the creation of Star Wars and how the band is already working on the next record.

The New York Times has an in-depth piece that takes a thorough look at the evolution of the “Creative Economy”, and in particular scrutinizes the way the music industry has developed in the wake of technological advances.  While I would take some of the conclusions they reach with a grain of salt, the article is worth reading to see the process of how they came to develop these arguments.

Another weekend, another anniversary–this time, Stereogum is taking a look back to the year 2005 and the release of Kanye West’s second album, Late Registration.  Considering his continued impact on popular music, it is somewhat amazing to realize Kanye has only been around for a little more than a decade, and this well-written piece makes the argument that Late Registration stands out from the rest of Kanye’s formidable catalog.

Consequence of Sound has a retrospective piece on the 50th anniversary of Bob Dylan’s seminal album Highway 61 Revisited, with the added bonus of including tidbits from a couple of the session players that contributed to the record.

Finally, Pitchfork has a piece that uses the twentieth anniversary of Rancid’s hit “Time Bomb” as a jumping-off point for a look at the history of 2 Tone Ska, analyzing the differences between its development in the UK and the US as well as how the social issues that were a central part of the music decades ago still are relevant today.

The Wilco File, Part 2

In Part 1 of our examination of Wilco’s discography, we began with a look at the origins of the band and finished with an analysis of their biggest commercial success.  Today, we take a look at the second half of Wilco’s career, as they emerge from their tumultuous early years and solidify into one of the most consistently riveting live acts in the country.

A Ghost Is Born Though Yankee Hotel Foxtrot would ultimately prove to be a high point for the band, the process took a toll on the group.  As the band dealt with the external difficulties that arose from their record label troubles, the group was also once again experiencing internal struggles, culminating with the departure of multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett.  In addition, Jeff Tweedy was coping with an addiction to painkillers stemming from his chronic migraines, which would affect the promotion of YHF‘s follow-up.

My entry point into Wilco was A Ghost Is Born, so I have always held it in higher esteem than most, but I still insist the album represents the band’s creative peak.  The band’s sonic explorations had a more clear focus, and instead of being merely ornamental flourishes, helped support the songs themselves, like the Krautrock-inspired “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”.  The album is loaded with some of the group’s best pure rock songs, from “Handshake Drugs” to “Theologians” to “At Least That’s What You Said”, the last of which features the most scintillating and inventive guitar playing of Jeff Tweedy’s career.  The tour in support of A Ghost Is Born also spurred the creation of one of the greatest live records of all time, Kicking Television, a two-disc compilation that served as an effective showcase of the genius underlying that album.

Sky Blue Sky With their record label situation fully resolved and a lineup finally settled, Wilco decided the time was right to relax a bit, and the result was the release of the laid-back Sky Blue Sky.  It is the ultimate lazy summer album, perfect for unwinding with a beer after toiling under the hot sun mowing the lawn, though chilling after engaging in hard labor is hardly necessary for enjoyment.  This is around the time when the band began to be tagged with the derisive label of “dad rock”, and though it is somewhat accurate in reflecting the nature of the music, it need not be taken as an insult.  Sometimes, the mood is just right for easygoing jams like “Either Way” or “Side with the Seeds”, though Sky Blue Sky does feature the most epic guitar jam of the group’s career, with the three-headed attack of “Impossible Germany”, led by Nels Cline’s impeccable lead playing.

Wilco (the Album) The band continued to mine the same vein of Sky Blue Sky with the release of Wilco (the Album), a record that at the time seemed like a fine addition to the Wilco catalog but has come to be regarded as one of their least essential recordings.  Cuts from the album have for the most part disappeared from the band’s setlist, and while there are several pleasant moments scattered throughout (ranging from the soaring “One Wing” to the beautiful “Everlasting Everything” to the restless “Bull Black Nova”), it rarely leaves a lasting impression on the listener.

The Whole Love Wilco switched gears with the wide-ranging and adventurous  The Whole Love, which saw the band scratching that itch for the experimental for the first time in years.  For the first time since A Ghost Is Born, it seemed the band decided to challenge themselves, an intention that is clear from the outset with the multi-part opener “Art of Almost”.  In addition, Wilco prove that they still have a playful side, as seen with the bouncy “Dawned on Me” and the goofy “I Might”, and that they are not afraid to cut loose, as they do with the boisterous “Standing O”.  In many ways, The Whole Love served as a perfect encapsulation of all facets of the Wilco sound.

There you have it.  Oh, because everyone likes lists, here is the definitive ranking of Wilco albums, which also doubles as a handy step-by-step guide to working through their back catalog.

  1. A Ghost Is Born
  2. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
  3. Summerteeth
  4. Being There
  5. The Whole Love
  6. A.M.
  7. Sky Blue Sky
  8. Wilco (the Album)

The Wilco File, Part 1

Last Friday, Wilco released their ninth studio album Star Wars in a more tangible form than “downloadable files”.  We already published our review of their excellent new record, but there are probably several readers who may have been intrigued by what they heard in Star Wars but have yet to take the plunge into Wilco’s extensive back catalog.  Sure, the band helped simplify the process a bit by releasing the greatest hits collection What’s Your 20?, but a compilation only gives you a partial glimpse of the evolution of the band.  So we are here to provide this handy guide to the Wilco discography, broken up into two easily-digestible halves.

A.M. In order to understand the poor reputation of Wilco’s debut album, one needs to know the circumstances of its creation.  Wilco was formed after the breakup of the beloved and influential underground alt-country act Uncle Tupelo.  Tensions had been simmering for a while and came to a head just as Uncle Tupelo was breaking into the mainstream, and irreconcilable differences between the two primary songwriters resulted in the group being split into two bands.  Jay Farrar formed Son Volt, while the rest of Uncle Tupelo lined up under Jeff Tweedy to form Wilco.  The initial critical consensus was that Jay Farrar, who wrote the bulk of the material for Uncle Tupelo, had the stronger debut with Son Volt, and Tweedy’s group suffered in comparison.

However, when you separate the album from the drama that surrounded its release, A.M. holds up much better.  Without those expectations of living up to Uncle Tupelo’s past work, one can enjoy the record for what it is: a light and fun country-tinged rock album.  The band keeps the song structures simple and the tone is very playful, and the inclusion of some of these early songs in recent setlists has been a pleasant surprise.  Those connoisseurs of fine taste, Beavis and Butt-head, knew what was up.

Being There Critics were quick to dismiss Wilco after A.M., but they were quick to reverse themselves when the group released Being There, one of the few double albums that actually works as a double album.  Being There hints at the direction the group would take in subsequent albums, with its shift to a more serious and melancholic tone.  The album also marked Wilco’s beginning into more experimental production touches, most notably their initial forays into incorporating noise and other similar elements into their songs, as can be heard with the opener and audience favorite “Misunderstood”, a relatively straightforward three-chord ballad that is marked by little details like an alarm beeping in the background as well as the big noisy crashes that interrupt the flow of the song periodically.

The division into two discs makes sense from a sonic perspective, with the first disc primarily composed of upbeat rockers with the second one focused on more acoustic numbers.  Though the entire album could fit onto a single disc, the split helps prevent the listener from becoming overwhelmed in attempting to listen to eighty straight minutes in one sitting, and allows the listener to choose a side that more appropriately reflects the mood.  It is a testament to the balance of Wilco’s sound that each disc is qual in quality.

Summerteeth After earning plaudits for Being There, Wilco decided to cut loose a bit and go in a poppier direction, a decision that caused a split with the group’s fans at the time.  Summerteeth is a bright, lush album filled with huge arrangements and a sparkling production that allows all the musical layers to shine.  The album moves at a brisk pace, but the peaks represent some of the best work that Wilco has done in their career, including the groovy “Can’t Stand It”, the driving “A Shot In The Arm”, and the ebullient “Nothing’severgonnastandinmyway(again)”.  Still, amid all the happiness, the record is probably best known for the stark, bleak “Via Chicago”, with its memorable opening line “I dreamed about killing you again last night, and it felt alright to me” and its several band freakouts.  In the middle of all that turbulence, however, there is still that incredible descending melodic hook that persists throughout and drives the song, summing up the theme of the record.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot Considered by many to be Wilco’s masterpiece, the album was close to never being released at all, as documented in the film I Am Trying To Break Your Heart.  The initial rejection by the band’s label seems quaint now, with its reputation as an anti-commercial record seeming overblown as the years have passed; the fact that Reprise did not think it could sell the record based on pure pop songs and ready-made singles like “Heavy Metal Drummer” and “I’m the Man Who Loves You” says more about their own skills than anything.

However, there is the faintest hint of merit to the label’s concern, as a lot of the songs are gussied up with unnecessarily bracing production flourishes.  These random elements obscure some of the most gorgeous and eloquent songwriting of the band’s career, though it was their clear intent.  It is an album that is meant to be off-putting on the first few listens, but the hints of what lay underneath the surface are enough to entice closer inspection.  Live editions of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot tracks help strip away some of the artifice to reveal the heart of the songs themselves, and may be a better entry point into the record, but when one gets comfortable with the material, it is easier to appreciate all those extraneous touches.

Wilco, Live at Edgefield

Edgefield is easily one of the best venues in Oregon, and it is too bad that we were unable to see more shows there this summer.  However, if it ends up that we only make it out to Troutdale one time this year, Wilco certainly did their best to make it worthwhile.  The band entertained the sold-out crowd with a career-spanning, thirty song set that captured every aspect of the group’s sound.

If you look closely, the cat from the Star Wars cover is hanging out by Glen.

If you look closely, the cat from the Star Wars cover is hanging out by Glenn.

Wilco kicked off the show with a mini-set of their entire new album, Star Wars, entering the stage to the noisy opener “EKG” before playing straight through the entire record.  The crowd ate it up, with a fair portion having already memorized many of the lyrics from last month’s surprise release.  The new material translated well live, with the band staying faithful to the record, besides Nels Cline adding some embellishments and Glenn Kotche indulging in an extended drum solo between songs.

To Jeff's delight, it finally got dark enough.

To Jeff’s delight, it finally got dark enough.

Once “Magnetized” closed out the “opening set”, Jeff Tweedy greeted the crowd and the band launched into a roaring version of “Handshake Drugs”.  For the most part, the band kept the energy up during the main set, flying through uptempo numbers like “Dawned on Me”, “Heavy Metal Drummer”, and “I’m the Man That Loves You”.  Wilco did not just stick with the fun, bouncy songs though, as they played a varied set that covered all the assorted genres the band has flitted with over the years.  The group delighted the crowd with their moody, noisy freakouts in “Via Chicago” and “Art of Almost” as well as the introspective favorite “Jesus, Etc.”, but the audience truly came alive with the epic, extended guitar workouts of “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” and “Impossible Germany”.

For the encore, Wilco went retro

For the encore, Wilco went retro.

For the encore, the band eschewed amps and went old-school with a full acoustic lineup, with even keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen picking up an axe at one point.  The band began with a solemn rendition of “Misunderstood”, featuring an ending that stood in stark contrast with the way the long-time live favorite has been performed–instead of an ever-escalating repetition of the “nothing” part in “I’d like to thank you all for nothing at all”, the band gradually played softer, with members dropping out, finishing with Tweedy whispering the final notes in a powerful moment.  Bassist John Stirratt then got a turn at the mic as the band played “It’s Just That Simple” from their debut A.M., followed by an even earlier selection as they played “We’ve Been Had” by pre-Wilco group Uncle Tupelo.  Special guests (and Portland residents) Peter Buck of R.E.M., Janet Weiss of Sleater-Kinney, and Scott McCaughey joined in for the second of two Mermaid Avenue selections, livening up “California Stars” with an extra dose of familial feeling, before the band closed out with a relaxed take on “A Shot in the Arm”.

Wilco proved once again why they have been consistently one of the great live acts of the past two decades, and we wish we could have seen more of Speedy Ortiz’s opening set.  Unfortunately, Portland’s terrible Sunday traffic only allowed us to see a handful of songs from one of our favorite new bands, but we liked what we heard, even if most of the crowd seemed relatively indifferent.

Review: Wilco – Star Wars

Wilco stunned the music world with the surprise release of their ninth studio album, Star Wars, a few weeks ago.  While we have seen some of the biggest pop stars on the planet undertake this kind of gambit (such as Beyonce and U2), it did not seem to be the kind of maneuver that the normally staid indie rock darlings would attempt.  However, the casual nature of the album’s release serves Star Wars well, as it fits the easy-going mood of the material; freed from the anxiety that comes with the build-up and anticipation of months of promotion, Wilco sounds as loose as it has ever been, and the result is the perfect album for a lazy summer afternoon.

Wilco reached their greatest commercial success with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born, albums that were intricately composed and fussily produced, but there has always been a part of the band’s identity that pushed back against that instinct and ease up a bit.  Jeff Tweedy most recently indulged in that tendency with his Tweedy side project he put out last year with his son, but unlike Sukirae or Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky, the looseness of Star Wars is based more on having fun than simple relaxation.  Even on moments like the sweet “Where Do I Begin”, the band is not afraid of blowing up a lovely ballad to explode in a noisy and triumphant finish.

In a stark contrast with the multi-part layered epics on The Whole Love, the music on Star Wars is stripped down to its basic elements, with songs rarely stretched beyond three minutes.  Guitars with a touch of fuzz distortion dominate the sound, with multi-instrumentalist Patrick Sansone making it a three-guitar attack for most of the record.  The shift in approach creates a sharper and more rocking feel to the album, which is apparent on such songs as “More…” and “Random Name Generator”.  The downside is that Mikael Jorgensen’s keyboards are often lost in the shuffle and minimized for the most part, save for a key role in shaping the closer “Magnetized”.

As a gift to fans, Star Wars is a perfect treat.  Those that longed for the carefree days of the early years circa Being There should be more than satisfied with the album, and those that appreciate the knottier and denser material can appreciate cuts like “You Satellite” that stand out after repeated listens.  Though there were many that took advantage of the generous free download opportunity, most will certainly feel compelled enough to give their thanks by purchasing the album when it goes on sale in the near future.

As for the mystery behind the title and the goofy cover art?  Jeff Tweedy can only respond, “I cry at the joke explained.”

Over the Weekend (July 20 Edition)

New music, new videos, and news as you recover from a weekend spent with the sun shining mercilessly on a gravel pit…

Wilco shocked the music-loving world last week with the surprise release of their latest album, Star Wars, for free through their website.  The record is a very loose affair, hearkening back to the pre-Summerteeth era, and serves as the perfect soundtrack for a lazy summer afternoon.  They played the record in its entirety during their Pitchfork Musical Festival-headlining set, so those of you who are lucky enough to have tickets for their current tour should prepare yourselves accordingly.

We are entirely against the idea of playing the song “Friday I’m in Love” on any day except Friday, though we may have to make an exception for Yo La Tengo’s pleasant take The Cure’s classic for their new covers album Stuff Like That There, especially for its hilarious music video that is perfect for any Monday.

Wavves shared their latest single “Way Too Much” last week after a brief brouhaha with their label.  The drama seems to have ended, which is great news because the song has us amped for the October 2nd release of V.

Pitchfork has a handy guide to a list of the best books of the 33 1/3 series, which allows writers to examine classic albums through a variety of perspectives.  We can vouch for the excellence of the entry on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, and one of these days we will pick up a few more selections.

If you are in need of a laugh this week, we highly recommend you check out Clickhole’s irreverent take on the Oral History.  Their most recent look at the making of Jay Z’s The Blueprint is hysterical, though it may be topped by their examination of the creation of OK Computer.  Those expecting a serious look at the making of those classic albums will be sorely disappointed, but everyone else should enjoy the mocking of an often tired format.

Catching Up On The Week (May 8 Edition)

Some #longreads as you make plans for Mother’s Day

In case you were unaware, Mother’s Day is this Sunday, so let this be a reminder to make plans if you have not done so already.  Over the years, there have been plenty of tributes to Dear Mama, though few of them are truly memorable.  The AV Club takes a closer look at an overlooked effort from Menomena, examining the backstory from their album Moms and one of its most personal tracks, “Baton”.

The biggest release of the week was My Morning Jacket’s latest album, The Waterfall.  While we work on our own review of the record, we recommend that you read this Stereogum essay to help provide some perspective, as it analyzes the album not only within the My Morning Jacket discography but in context of trends of the past decade in rock as a whole.

This week’s most entertaining piece was the oral history of the immortal Redman episode of Cribs, courtesy of Thrillist.  Yes, Redman actually lived in that tiny apartment.

Rolling Stone interviewed Dennis Lyxzén to get the story of how after their successful reunion tour that the time was finally right for Refused to record a follow-up to their classic The Shape of Punk to Come, and what to expect from Freedom.

Trunkworthy published an ode to one of our favorite Wilco albums, the underappreciated Summerteeth.  To this day, it is still one of my favorite records, and hopefully when Wilco stops by later this summer they play more than a few cuts from it.