Revisiting and Expanding Themselves on a Fantastic New Album
I have to admit upfront: I am not a huge country music fan.
That’s not to say I’m like the rest of the U.S. who either outright dismisses the joys of what the genre and its history have to offer, or what it sounds like currently, or those who think it’s current pop-fried sound (Carrie Underwood, Taylor Swift even four years ago, for example) betray the roots of what it was and what it should be.
No, I’m a latent country fan. I like the ideas behind the music, and I like my share of Johnny Cash albums and the other artists who skewed closer to rock n’ roll than that of pure country. Not that there’s much of a difference nowadays, since Garth Brooks added KISS-like flair to his live show and production in his albums (this comment thanks to watching re-runs of VH-1’s “Pop-Up Video”), but that’s not really the point here.
The reality is, I can’t tell what makes country music ‘country’ by most standards. I’ve recently been the DJ at a wedding where the newlywed couple asked for a lot of country music, particularly of the more modern variety. I played what I could, but a lot of it didn’t sound ‘country’-esque to me, besides the occasional presence of a steel lap pedal guitar, or a melodic phrase that happens to be ‘country’-ish, to my ears. To me, country is about putting tears in yer beer, bemoanin’ loss, and hatin’ yer boss. But, as the night went on, guests asked for just some straight modern music -- the aforementioned Taylor Swift, her arch rival Katy Perry, bands like Maroon 5, pop-rap artists like Pitbull, etc.. Being the most exposure I’ve had to country music in my life, I walked away thinking of it the same way that Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart defined ‘obscenity’ in 1964 -- “I know it when I see it” -- or, in this case, hear itBut that’s not exclusively a matter of lyrics. Just because a whole lot of artists say things that might sound appealing to a country audience -- putting in images of trucks, town fairs, beer, the wood-paneled bars in which that beer is drunk, and a life-time supply of flannel and denim -- to me, doesn’t mean it’s country. Country music should be tuned to sound like it’s coming from a bar just around the corner, and the room is half-empty.
Which is what brings me to Schmilco, the latest from Wilco.
Wilco, which was born out of the break-up of alternative-rock/country band Uncle Tupelo, has spent a lot of its years as an indie rock darling, creating experimental pop-rock songs that, unlike most of their ilk, chose to experiment on their fringes. It took me a long time to get into this band because of their reputation among the Indie Rock crowd, but when I did, I realized, oh, they just have the occasional weird sound effect giving their songs some texture. Not bad.
But for this reputation -- built largely on indie rock favorites Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, its predecessor Summerteeth, and the haunting a ghost is born -- it’s easy to lose sight of the deceptively simple songwriting Jeff Tweedy commits to. The last few albums by Wilco, by the suggestion of their titles alone, seem to suggest that Tweedy is finally in a place, mentally and spiritually, to just have fun being in a band -- of the last four albums, three of their names have included Schmilco, Star Wars, and the ridiculously tongue-in-cheek Wilco (The Album). And perhaps this sense of fun began on that last album, in the song “Wilco (The Song)” wherein the band plays tribute to itself by acknowledging the reputation it cultivated since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, being a spokesband for dispondent, arty kids:
Are times getting tough?
Are the roads you travel rough?
Have you had enough of the old?
Tired of being exposed to the cold?
Stare at your stereo
Put on your headphones
Before you explode
Oh, oh, oh, oh
Wilco will love you, baby
But that was a few albums back. Here on Schmilco, an album that is light on the experimental fringes for which the band has become known in favor of acoustic guitar and lightly brushed snare drums, plays for simplicity and sincere-and-steely attitude that, to me, is what country music should sound like. Tweedy is emotional, but not necessarily pleading through songs about being an outcast since being a teenager (“Normal American Kids”), or an overly emotional artist (“Cry All Day”). Or, coming between them, “If I Ever Was a Child,” which doesn’t take the position that it’s necessarily a therapeutic bio-based song, about the difficulty of growing up quick, and hard just because it comes with that speed. You know you’re in for a fantastic album when the first three songs set out the rest of the experience.
“Common Sense,” then, immediately splits that authentic country feel for what the experimental Wilco fans may be after, with spidery, eerie guitar tapping that are never too loud, accompanying a meandering, angular riff and searching-for-an-anchor vocal melody. It’s here where the songs are experimental for the purpose to see what happens that the album doesn’t work as well. And yet, feel cohesive to the rest of Wilco’s output simply because they’ve done this sort of material before. Should it have been on their previous effort, the hard-rocking Star Wars, as a palate-cleanser between all that loud feedback? Reckon so. Reckon it fits here, too. But even after a short dalliance into the experimental rock realm, the band goes back to the soft, blues-based country of the first three tracks, a more comfortable fit to be sure, but it justifies the stray experimental touch here or there -- “Locator” is the next of such tracks, but it sounds more akin to the weekend stoner fun to be found on their more recent albums like Wilco (The Album).
Schmilco ends on a weirder note than expected with “We Aren’t the World (Safety Girl)” and “Just Say Goodbye” -- more in the indie-pop vein than the rest of the album, yet still has the volume set to ‘4’ at the highest. “We Aren’t the World,” with its tongue firmly in place seems to take the voice of a narrator of high school age at about the time when the “We Are The World” charity track came out in the 80s, works to save the romance of being the kind of guy who isn’t out to save the world, isn’t out to live the largest but to still celebrate the things life has to offer, even if it means being a less than popular, loudmouthed-malcontent. Humorous, not quite outwardly funny, but it fits as a companion to the final track, “Just Say Goodbye” -- a pleading, but not quite desperate case to just to state your case and make yourself heard. Anybody who’s ever done anything creative of any stripe could feel the pathos in the song -- here’s a guy just trying to say exactly what’s on his mind, and even if just saying idea is hard, it’s still difficult.
Pardon me for letting my English major background slip into the review, but damned if I can’t respect a country album that veers the emotional highs and lows of being an artsy outcast, and still feeling it well into adulthood. The album connects on a deeper listen, to be sure, but don’t let that distract you from the sheer joy of hearing a band assemble such well-layered sounds that fit like jigsaw pieces. Sonically, this should be required late night, or late Sunday afternoon listening, fitting perfectly somewhere between reading the paper over coffee, or, say, writing an album review. It’s not aggressive, but it is surprising, and perhaps the most rewarding album I’ve heard this year on repeated listens.
Record Recommendation This Week: I had heard that IFC’s mockumentary show, “Documentary Now!” took on Johnathan Demme’s Talking Heads documentary, “Stop Making Sense,” which has an equally popular live album equivalent. I went to listen to it, and indeed, the album is just as much fun as the movie experience itself, especially in the first four tracks where the initial members of Talking Heads were introduced one-by-one as a show of what each member brings to the broad spectrum of music.
Having said that, I’d prefer to recommend the Talking Heads other live collection, the two-disc set titled The Name of this Band is Talking Heads. I recommend this over the album of Stop Making Sense for three reasons:
The album title is funnier.
It works in a similar fashion to Stop Making Sense, by showing the band’s evolution over time from 1977 through 1981, and shows just as great of a show of how the band’s individual members contribute to the overall show of Talking Heads, and by ‘81, several of the songs were re-configured to sound more like how they performed on the concert film opposed to the original records, anyway, so there’s nothing lost there.
A greater diversity in the set list, which is bound to happen in a larger two-desk set, sure, but if you’re going to show a band’s evolution, I say it’s best to experience it in the natural survey of time opposed to how David Byrne sees fit over the course of an hour.
That, and I’m a sucker for early tracks like “Love ---> Buildings on Fire.” While you might miss out on some TH classics like “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody),” “Burning Down the House,” or the Tom Tom Club contribution, “Genius of Love,” The Name of this Band is Talking Heads is a more pure product of the consistency of how Talking Heads did a live show. And if that doesn’t work for you, let it be the avenue to rediscover terrific tracks like “Artists Only,” “Memories Can’t Wait” or “Cities.” And if that doesn’t do it for you, there’s always yet another terrific version of “Life During Wartime” to run around your living room like a madman to.