Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Wilco - The Whole Love

There are two tracks that immediately stand out on Wilco's eighth and latest studio album, The Whole Love, and they stand out both for being terrific songs and also for being different from the rest of the album.  It seems a shame to write just one review and have my thoughts on those two songs jumbled up with my thoughts on the rest of the album, but what can you do?

Wilco has been called "The American Radiohead," a designation that lost any meaning a long time ago, but is strangely apt on album opener "The Art of Almost," which starts with feedback and skittering electronic percussion that could easily have been cribbed from any of Radiohead's recent effort.  Like "Ashes of American Flags," the opener to Wilco's magnum opus Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, "The Art of Almost" features cryptic lyrics sung understatedly in a catchy melody over a backdrop of disintegrating chaos.  Drums drop in and out, strings rise and fall, organ chords set a spare mood.  It's a great track ... but it's not really what The Whole Love is all about.

Album closer "One Sunday Morning" (enigmatically subtitled "Song For Jane Smiley's Boyfriend") is another great track.  It's a quiet tune, backed by an acoustic guitar riff with a mirrored piano line and delicate brushed percussion.  The song features one of singer / songwriter Jeff Tweedy's best vocal performances; it's understated but you can feel the emotion underlying it.  The lyrics are cryptic, evoking images of loss but not of grief, of skepticism but not of judgment, of nostalgia but not regret.  The song goes on for twelve minutes ("This is how I'll tell it / Oh, but it's long," Tweedy sings) and it has no chorus or bridge, but somehow it never gets old.  Again, it's a terrific track ... but it's not really what The Whole Love is about.

So what is The Whole Love about?  Simply put, it's the group's poppiest statement since Summerteeth. "Sunloathe" is the band's most Beatles-esque track, featuring harmonies on the chorus and some George-Harrison-style guitar.  The title track is a bouncy jaunt keyed by John Stirratt's groovy bass line.  (Stirratt is just a monster on this album; the bass sets the mood on each track, from the snaking groove of "Standing O" to the gentle country bump of "Black Moon" to the slides of "Born Alone.")  "Born Alone" features depressing existential lyrics set against an upbeat verse and an anthemic wordless chorus.  "Standing O" is rocking power pop in the traditional of some of Big Star's finest moments.  "Dawned On Me" features a bop-along chorus that rivals "Kamera" and "Heavy Metal Drummer" as one of Wilco's catchiest moments.  "The Whole Love" is a treat for anyone who enjoys pop, and it's nice to see they can still bring it when they go this route.

I'm a Wilco fan and have bought each of their albums.  This is their best effort since at least A Ghost Is Born, maybe since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and one of the best records of 2011.

Wilco official site

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Still Lost Bird Music - August

The greatest songwriters in pop / rock history invariably are compared to poets.  Still Lost Bird Music (the pop project of composer Simon Fink) decided to take things one step further, drawing on centuries of public-domain poetry for the lyrics to his latest album, August.  While the album continues in the rich pop vein of Still Lost Bird Music's debut, Sargent Egyptian Girl, it also includes a number of folk elements: banjos, fiddles, and acoustic guitars people the album throughout, giving it a pastoral foundation that melds with the poetic lyrics.

August, like SLBM's debut, is full of gorgeous pop backdrops for Fink's voice.  In the brief opener, "Storm," the echo-y vocals come out of a gauzy haze of acoustic guitar and organ.  "Nightfall" is a slow, spare pop gem, with jangly guitar over chimes and the gentle beat of a bass and snare drum.  "Luke Havergal" is set against a twangy backdrop of banjo and mouth harp.  "A Garden By the Sea," maybe the album's best track, is a dark tune accentuated by a snaking electric guitar riff and an explosive harmonica solo.  At its worst moments, the music and words conspire to indulgence; "The Stolen Child" sounds like it was pulled from a musical, and the melodrama of "Intrigue" is a bit overwrought.  But at its best, August is like nothing else.  "Lament For the Makers" is a super-catchy pop tune with a chorus in Latin; who does that?

August is unique and challenging, but it's still a beautiful and engaging listen.  Not every track is a home run, but it's amazing that a project like this worked, and produced one of the best albums of 2011.

Still Lost Bird Music official site

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Packway Handle Band - What Are We Gonna Do Now?

The Packway Handle Band totally won me over with their live show, so I picked up their most recent album, What Are We Gonna Do Now?  The group shows off some of the humor and energy that characterizes their live shows, but ultimately the album lacks something; the PHB is more suited to the live format.

The strongest track are those which feature the band's sense of humor.  "I'm Glad You've Got My Priorities So Straight" is a vitriolic masterpiece delivered in a completely deadpan manner.  "The Packway Handle Song," instead of revealing the secret of the band's name, takes glee in obscuring it further.  It also gets some digs in at Tennessee folks (the band is based in Athens, Georgia, home of UGA).  These songs are both written by fiddler Andrew Heaton, who also pens the title track, which closes the album and serves as kind of a roster for the band.  By this time, the schtick wore a little thin, and I was left wondering, "another novelty song?"

The band shares songwriting duties, and the other band members tend to play things a little more straight.  Mandolin player Michael Paynter contributes many of the tracks.  Opener "Walking Disaster" is almost emo in its self-deprecation, but some of the imagery couldn't help but make me chuckle: "I'm what the rubber-neckers are gawking at."  Classic.  Paynter's ballad "Tired" isn't as strong, dialing back the album's energy three-fourths of the way through.  The third songwriter is guitarist Josh Erwin, who contributes unremarkable instrumental "Horse vs. Technology" and the deliciously dark "Lord Baltimore," a kind of bluegrass heir to Nick Cave's creepy "Red Right Hand."  It's one of the album's best moments and shows a nice contrast to some of the group's lighter moments.

All in all, What Are We Gonna Do Now? is a decent album, with some standout tracks (Priorities, "Walking Disaster," "Lord Baltimore") alongside some more forgettable ones.  Definitely check those tracks out, and be sure to catch the Packway Handle Band if they come to your town.  The live show is killer.

Packway Handle Band official site