WILCO Being There (Reprise)

"Being There" is the second long player from Wilco, an American quintet based around the genius of ex-Uncle Tupelo members Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett. They play a seamless meld of sassy rock and hip country, with nods, although emphatically not debts, due to the Stones circa "Sticky Fingers" and "Exile On Main St", Big Star’s "Radio City", The Replacements, R.E.M. (whose Peter Buck has been known to produce the odd Uncle Tupelo album, strangely enough), prime Little Feat and Gram Parsons.

What Wilco posses in an abundance even greater than their many other qualities (e.g. Jeff Tweedy’s miraculous songwriting ability, instrumental dexterity, interplay and interchanging that would put even the likes of The Band to shame - apart from the standard beat group devices "Being There" is littered with accordions, harmonicas, radios, violins, mandolins, fiddles, dobros and a dynamite brass section) is swagger. Compare the sheer suss that these grooves reek of with the sort of pallid imitation of attitude that the lanky homegrown likes of Oasis and The (late) Stone Roses could muster. But then there’s the songs, and their undercurrent of deep rooted belief, not only in relationships but also of the devotional, healing powers of the many toothed beastie that is rock ‘n’ roll.

"Music is my saviour/I was maimed by rock ‘n’ roll/I was named by rock ‘n’ roll/I was tamed by rock ‘n’ roll", croons Tweedy in "Sunken Treasure", one of the album’s dozen or so dead cert classics, and "The Lonely 1" is the most honest portrayal of the fan’s life since The Smith’s "Paint A Vulgar Picture". No extra-track-and-a-tacky-badge bitterness here as we follow Jeff home from work, watch him turn off the burglar alarm, check the answering machine for messages, listen to the previous day’s when he finds no new ones and put on his favourite song.

Then there’s the brass-blaring likes of "Monday" and "I Got You (At The End Of The Century)", surely the best two Alex Chilton songs not written by Alex Chilton (or Teenage Fanclub, come to think of it), the matching twosome of "Outtasite (Outa Mind)" (soon to be Wilco’s first single) and "Outta Mind (Outta Sight)" (which does sound a wee bit like the theme from "Sesame Street", but when could that ever be a problem?), the more stoutly country "Far, Far Away" and "Forget The Flowers" and the raucous false-ending friendly "Dreamer In My Dreams".

Cut me some slack for raving at length about yet another band that nobody else around here has heard of/will ever hear, but for those of us who, among other interests or otherwise, still value traditional niceties like songwriting and (whisper it) musicianship, I really can’t recommend "Being There" highly enough. I bought it five days ago and I’ve played it at least once a day since then - it has that unputdownable, got-to-play-it-again quality that turns up about once in a blue moon. Two complaints: at a shade under eighty minutes it just isn’t long enough (Tweedy had apparently written over seventy songs for the album, but considered some of them to be substandard...), and vinyl buyers (guess who?) will find themselves held to ransom to the tune of whatever their local specialist retailer feels like charging for the American-import-only pressing. (I paid 20 for mine - still fine value for money, all things considered - the domestic double CD rolls in at a less pricey 13 or so.) Anyway, following Trans Am and Daft Punk, here’s my third nomination for album of the year in as many months. Looks like we’re all going to be saved by rock ‘n’ roll one more time.

WILCO Summerteeth (Reprise)

WILCO Can’t Stand It (Reprise)

Pity poor Wilco: for two months the music press were referring to "Summerteeth" (rather optimistically, I thought) as 'this year's "Deserter's Songs"', and then along comes the new Flaming Lips album raved about incoherently above - which genuinely is this year's "Deserter's Songs" - and all of a sudden "Summerteeth" gets forgotten about. Build 'em up etc. etc.

But whilst "Summerteeth" isn't a defining text in the nu-psychedelia movement, it is interesting. Wilco's last album, the immaculate double "Being There", took the remnants of the "No Depression" alt-country movement about as far as they could travel, turning in a seamless fusion of American Music Club, Big Star, Little Feat, Flying Burrito Brothers and "Exile On Main St"-era Rolling Stones, all wrapped up in Jeff Tweedy's wonderful songwriting. "Summerteeth" doesn't attempt to follow it, but lurches into pastures new and untilled by nobody except Wilco themselves.

The basic country-rock template remains at the heart of proceedings, but gets warped out of shape and buried by lashings of "Smiley Smile" Brian Wilsonesque experimentation, with copious quantities of overdubbed keyboards and percussion ladled over many of the 16 tracks (15 if you exclude the extraneous remix of "A Shot In The Arm" that appears to be identical to the original version but, er, shorter).

Unfortunately, for me the quality of the songs on "Summerteeth" seems inversely proportional to their complexity: "She's A Jar" begins with one of the most arrestingly original metaphor's in rock - "She's a jar with a heavy lid/My pop quiz kid" - and closes four minutes later on the line "She begs me not to hit her". How they do it, and what it all means, I have no idea, but if there's any requirement for proof of Wilco's genius at the art of songcraft, here it is. And then there's the exquisitely sad "How To Fight Loneliness" ("Smile all the time", is Jeff Tweedy's sage advice) and "When You Wake Up Feeling Old", and the moody dislocation of "Via Chicago".

The remainder of "Summerteeth" is more complex, both musically and melodically, up to the point where "Pieholden Suite" seems to want to be "Penny Lane", "Smiley Smile" and the second side of "Ogden's Nut Gone Flake" all at the same time - proceedings can get pretty messy, in other words. Added to which much of Wilco's good work is undone by Warners' abysmal pressing: "Summerteeth" is the first Wilco album to be afforded a proper UK vinyl release, but judging by this compressed and distorted travesty they really shouldn't have bothered, especially after the vodka-clear wonderment of the American pressed "Being There".

So "Summerteeth" is something of a mixed bag to this listener, who has been careful to treat it to repeated plays before passing judgement. It's a grower, definitely, and it may yet bloom some more. As a brave attempt to avoid simply remaking "Being There" it should be congratulated, but whether I'll ever hold it in such regard as that landmark work only time will tell.

"Can’t Stand It", meanwhile, is the lead track from "Summerteeth" transplanted as Wilco’s second ever single, which arrives in two different flavours of CD. One sports two previously unreleased tracks, the sub two-minute thrash of "Student Loan Stereo" and the more typically 1999 model Wilco jauntiness of "Tried And True". More interesting is the second CD, padded with two songs recorded to DAT during a Jeff Tweedy solo acoustic show at Chicago’s legendary Lounge Ax. "I’m Always In Love" arrives fresh from "Summerteeth", but the standout is a freewheeling version of "Sunken Treasure" from the ever-mighty "Being There": you may want to strangle the guy in the audience who yells "Jeff Tweedy!" after JT sings the line "Got my name from rock ‘n’ roll", but otherwise this is a prime example of Mark Eitzel-style self-analysis gone dusty country rock.

WILCO A Shot In The Arm (Reprise)

More CD single-shaped wonderment from Wilco, as The Man continues his doomed-to-failure drive to sell twisted psychedelic country rock to the masses. The lead track on both of the now-customary two CDs is a fresh-off-the-album version of "A Shot In The Arm", so the interest lies in the other four songs presented here, sparse but still polished demo versions of "Via Chicago", "She's A Jar" (two of "Summerteeth"'s best moments) and "ELT", and a cover of Daniel Johnston's "True Love Will Find You In The End". All of which are highly cherishable, and more interesting than most of the bonus cuts that accompanied Wilco's last single, "Can't Stand It", if totally unnecessary to all but the most hardened Wilco obsessive.

WILCO Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch)

Wilco's Jeff Tweedy was convinced that his band's fourth album was "a total, unabashed pop album". His record label, Reprise, felt sufficiently differently to cast them asunder, but, undeterred, the band made it available via their website. The demand from fans resulted in a bidding war, with the victor's spoils eventually secured by Nonesuch, the contemporary classical music division of the very same entertainment conglomerate that rejected the album in the first place.

Enough of the sweet revenge, what of "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" itself? If, last time around on the slightly below par "Summerteeth", Wilco seemed enraptured with the psychedelic sound world The Beatles had constructed circa "Magical Mystery Tour", "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" betrays some obvious White Album influence. Disembodied squeaks, chatterings, bleeps and rattles seep out of these songs - check the angry, buzzing calliope that floats through "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart", for example. And the lyrics seem to be about alcoholism and destruction, broken relationships, broken lives, everything is broken. There's a pervading sense of doom and decay that whirls up into something tangible when the album's opening line - "I am an American aquarium drinker" - swims out of the minutely detailed and beautifully orchestrated swirling sonic fog. (There are moments when the album sounds like an aural recreation of seasickness, for example during the closing pages of "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart".)

And then "Kamera" snaps in with such crisp, chiming clarity it's positively startling, even though the lyrics are just as disconnected as before: "Phone my family/Tell them I'm lost on the sidewalk". "Radio Cure" is as down and out as, hopefully, it could possibly get, as Tweedy seemingly groans "Cheer up honey, I hope you can" not at all convincingly, seemingly from the end of the universe. The single "War On War" sees them distress the conventions of song structure still further by repeating the title eight times in the first eight lines and then ignoring it for the rest of the song. "Jesus, Etc." swoops along on a disorientating, giddy string arrangement, whilst the electronic stabs that pulse through the distorted murk at the close of "Ashes Of American Flags" are pure "Revolution 9". In an alternative universe "Heavy Metal Drummer" would be a sure-fire summer hit. It's the album's most immediate song - and that's not a bad thing, is it? - but it still dispatches infidelity, drugs and Kiss covers in three minutes.

The album's greatest achievements are saved until the end. "Poor Places" hangs weightlessly in the air, suspended on harmonium drones, as the alcohol soaks in again - "There's bourbon on the breath of the singer you love so much" - and glides away on a heavenly, fractured piano riff, the disembodied voice of an East European female blankly intoning the album's title and a rising thermal of white noise. An awesome moment, but how to follow it? Wilco do it with minor key piano chords, an apology letter of a lyric, desperately seeking forgiveness, and the chorus "I've got reservations about so many things/But not about you", before drifting into radio static ambience.

"Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" is a fathomless, dark well of possibility and courage, something the sympathetic listener will be able to draw comfort from for years to come, and almost, in its own way, the negative of The Flaming Lips' mighty "The Soft Bulletin", although the cumulative effect of these songs is similar to that album's. It would be easy to accuse the band of attempting to emulate Radiohead with the outbreaks of diseased electronica that permeate these songs, except that with Jim O'Rourke at the controls Wilco have tapped into a long, distinguished heritage of experimentation, and their journey down this particular road was clearly anticipated last time around. All that prevents "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" being, for me, Wilco's greatest achievement yet is the nostalgic attachment I still have to the fabulous "Being There" and its glorious mash-up of Big Star, "Exile On Main St" and Gram Parsons. Jeff Tweedy was one of the founding fathers of alt.country. Hear him burn his nation down.

WILCO A Ghost Is Born (Nonesuch)

Shorn of much of the short wave static that made the astounding “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” such an aquarium-drunk experience, on their fifth album Jeff Tweedy and his cohorts build the strangeness into the structure of the songs. “At Least That’s What You Said” begins as a whispered post-argument dialogue over hesitant piano, before Crazy Horse circa 1969 barge in to disrupt proceedings with some brutal, unruly garage rock. And then Tweedy begins unleashing random shards of electric guitar, as if his fingers are plugged directly into a dark well of confused, contradictory emotions, barrelling onwards atop Glenn Kotche’s percussion fusillade. If a more audacious five minutes of music has been released this year I have yet to hear it.

“Hell Is Chrome” begins as a dead ringer for “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” before heading for chillier, ambiguous territory, although it might instructive to consider that the lines “I was welcomed with open arms/I received so much help in every way/I felt no fear” are sung by a man in the grip of a painkiller addiction. In fact, throughout “A Ghost Is Born”, Tweedy’s lyrics have taken another elliptical turn inwards - a disappointment to anyone hoping for material as cheerfully straightforward as “Heavy Metal Drummer”, but his allusive words are like arthouse cinema poured onto the page for the rest of us.

"Spiders (Kidsmoke)” is 11 turbulent minutes of Krautrock pulse, with the barest hint of Beefheart’s “Dropout Boogie” in the keyboard riff, with more fragments of magical guitar between inscrutable verses and a glorious central wigout. The gentler “Muzzle Of Bees” is an intricate web of sun-dappled imagery and fragile, glowing music, almost Lambchopian in its restraint and reserve, that hints at a sequence of communication breakdowns (“I’m assuming you got my message/On your machine/I’m assuming you love me/And you know what that means”), and “Hummingbird” briefly revisits the “Sesame Street” theme tune as they did with “Outta Mind (Outta Sight)” years ago. In a parallel universe of goodness “Handshake Drugs” would be the big single, an insidious, reflexive puzzle of a song that finds the band at their least melodically complicated whilst retaining the mystery and invention that make their music so compelling.

As they often do, “I’m A Wheel” hides dark threats behind a deceptively jaunty melody (“I will turn on you”, warns the chorus). “Less Than You Think” corrupts a delicate piano ballad with twelve minutes of oscillating synthesised drones, the kind of tactic more normally the preserve of Spiritualized b-sides or the more experimental fringes of the Sonic Youth catalogue (a band who, coincidentally, number Wilco co-conspirator Jim O’Rourke among their membership these days). Amusingly, this track was cruelly curtailed by unseen hand when heard during a visit to HMV the week the album came out – presumably it was deemed to not be the kind of music that programs customers to be happy consumers. With a moodswing as abrupt as “Revolution 9” giving way to “Good Night” on side four of “The Beatles”, it’s followed by more unaccustomed perkiness in “The Late Greats”, which laments the ephemeral nature of the best music (“The greatest lost track of all-time/The Late Greats’ Turpentine/You can’t hear it on the radio/Can’t hear it anywhere you go”).

Which, hopefully, is not at fate that will befall “A Ghost Is Born”. Perhaps more ambitious than “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”, maybe not as successful, it’s still a friendly spirit of an album that’s firmly parked as my favourite so far of an admittedly unimpressive year. It will reward what time the listener can spend unravelling its secrets, and, like its predecessor, will only grow in stature as it ages and matures.

WILCO CarlingAcademy2, Birmingham 22 June 2004

Huddled in a nondescript corner of the bar of Birmingham’s Academy in front of the nicest audience I’ve ever had the pleasure to be a member of – at no point did anybody push past trailing the contents of their pint pot behind them, and the psychotically bouncy guy who seems to park himself in front of me at every other standing gig I attend appeared to be washing his hair tonight – the mighty Wilco celebrated the release of their frequently mesmerising fifth album “A Ghost Is Born” by unleashing a performance that had firmly welded itself into the upper echelons of my all time favourite gigs even before we had exchanged the friendly, sweaty fug of the venue for the rain-lashed Brummie night outside. It hardly hindered that the sound was fabulous – every word of singer/songwriter/guitarist/centrepiece Jeff Tweedy’s oblique utterances rang clear, especially helpful considering the bulk of the set came from an album that had only been released the day before.

Tweedy apologised for the ambivalent manner with which he had greeted British audiences on previous occasions, explaining helpfully “I’ve been on drugs for ten years!”, and despite being reduced to a quintet on account of a recently bereaved keyboard player they had no difficulty replicating the whirring, rattles and clanks that haunted the songs performed from the “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” album (still the pinnacle of their career for me, despite strong competition from releases before and since). The new material was spiked with some astonishing, coruscated, serrated guitar work by Jeff Tweedy and his Greg Proops-lookalike deputy, especially on “At Least That’s What You Said”, which sounded like Neil Young and Tom Verlaine on an expedition in search of the lost chord, and the lengthy feedback duel that closed “Handshake Drugs”, a song rapidly beginning to sound like a classic, perhaps as a result of its pre-album exposure on a recent Uncut cover disc.

A tumultuous “Sunken Treasure” ended with the entire band adrift on a sea of psychosis, the keyboard player assaulting his instrument with bare-knuckled abandon, and the lengthy, motorik “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” made an astounding set closer, not least the revelatory moment when two nods from the drummer snapped the rest of the band smartly back from their separate explorations to the song’s pounding central motif. Other songs not so much performed as attacked with ferocity included “War On War” and “A Shot In The Arm”, kinda innocuous on album but here given big teeth and bigger boots. Introducing “One By One”, from the band’s “Mermaid Avenue” collaboration with Billy Bragg and Woody Guthrie, Tweedy was assailed with shouts of “Where’s Billy?”. At another juncture an audience member even more au fait with the secluded byways of the man’s back catalogue yelled out for “Pecan Pie”, a song recorded with his Travelling Wiburys-esque side project Golden Smog – he responded with it’s a few acapella lines from its hastily conceived anglicised equivalent, “Eel Pie”.

Despite lumbering under the weight of an arguably lopsided setlist – a single solitary tune each from their double alt.country apotheosis “Being There” and the brave, if ultimately unsuccessful, experimentation of “Summerteeth”, the absence of my “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” fave “Poor Places”, lashings of an album that had been in shops a mere 36 hours – Wilco were an awesome force of nature tonight. When they return in July with their absent sixth pair of hands and “A Ghost Is Born” has settled into the audience’s subconscious they’ll surely be unstoppable.

WILCO Kicking Television: Live In Chicago (Nonesuch)

Recorded during a four night stand at the titular city’s Vic Theatre, “Kicking Television: Live In Chicago” ostensibly celebrates Wilco’s first decade, although only guitarist/vocalist Jeff Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt remain from the lineup that recorded “A.M.”, the only corner of their back catalogue not revisited here. Nevertheless, in common with other Wilco live artefacts both official and unofficial, there’s almost an overabundance of riches here.

Proceedings open promisingly with a thumping, muscular “Misunderstood”, righteous cheers greeting the lines “You’re back in your old neighbourhood” and “You still love rock ‘n’ roll”. The sauntering strangeness of 2004’s “A Ghost Is Born” album is faithfully relayed here, but after a while the obligatory crescendo of instrumental chaos that ends song after song verges on the repetitive.

“At Least That’s What You Said” serves as a welcome palate cleanser, rising from its breathy, mumbled opening to the acrid slashing of its Neil-Young-circa-1969-with-afterburners guitar solo. (Tweedy follows it with the hilarious invocation “Let’s get this party started…with some mid-tempo rock!”)

Two songs here make their debut appearance on a Wilco album. “Kicking Television” is a raucous rave-up, like a fuzzier, punky cousin of “I’m A Wheel”, which might make more sense in a sweaty, smoky gig than in the relative sobriety of the domestic environment; it’s certainly one of Wilco’s least substantial songs. The closing “Comment” is a cover of a song by Charles Wright (Eazy-E’s dad), its inclusive plea for brotherhood somewhat different in tone to his son’s work.

They can’t resist dousing homecoming anthem “Via Chicago” in avant garde clatter, but a couple of forays into the “Mermaid Avenue” catalogue of Woody Guthrie and Billy Bragg collaborations are treated with rather more decorum, the autumnal melancholia of “One By One” demonstrating how far ahead of his time the old folkie really was. There’s a moment of revelation during “Radio Cure” when the chorus bursts forth from underneath a blanket of fog and static, the song also being blessed with one of the most lyrical guitar solos to find a home on a Wilco album.

In this reporter’s opinion the band’s studio high watermark, “Poor Places”, is radically refashioned here. Almost acoustic at first, its volcanic outro, replete with the repeated “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” call sign, is replaced by all kinds of instrumental chaos. By the time the smoke clears the band are already into the country Krautrock marathon of “Spiders (Kidsmoke)".

As I intimated earlier, the problem with “Kicking Television: Live In Chicago” is that there’s too much of it. I was fortunate enough to see Wilco in Birmingham the day after “A Ghost Is Born” was released, and their 100-minute set left me wanting more, in the finest of showbiz tradition. “Kicking Television”, in contrast, feels like a slog at times. Perhaps the best solution would be for each listener to trim the playlist to their personal preferences. There’s certainly no lack of raw material here.

WILCO Wilco (The Album) (Nonesuch)

By Wilco’s standards, their seventh, near-eponymous studio album is a weird work to get a handle on. Their previous records have usually been easy to characterise depending on their chronological location in the band’s discography. Early works such as “A.M.” and “Being There” showed their growing mastery of Americana; “Summerteeth” was dappled with Beatley psychedelia; “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” and “A Ghost Is Born” introduced challenging electronic experimentation. “Wilco (The Album)”, though, offers no such easy characterisations; almost everything that defined the aforementioned albums seems to have been systematically erased, leaving only the brilliant songs and compelling performances. Perhaps this return to core values explains that title.

Much that’s here is fine, chugging, almost generically enjoyable Wilco. The white-knuckle tension of “Bull Black Nova”, a snapshot from a murderous boyfriend storyboard, is one such example; “You Never Know”, channelling the spirit of George Harrison though its harmonies, guitar tones and “My Sweet Lord”-style descending lap steel patterns, is another. “Solitaire” also qualifies, pretty as a Paul Simon tune, its distant, reverberant percussion nodding to Roy Halee’s exacting production on the last couple of Simon & Garfunkel albums.

There are also moments that are truly exceptional. “One Wing” is an elliptical examination of a ravaged relationship, as eloquent as its title. Almost its mirror image, “You And I”, which finds Jeff Tweedy duetting with Feist, is a gorgeous evocation of the frail, tentative wonder of a new relationship. “Everlasting Everything” is perhaps the album’s masterstroke. It explores similar territory to The Flaming Lips’ “Do You Realize??”, albeit exchanging the latter’s heartstring-tugging dayglo wonder for something subtler and slipperier, quietly raging against resignation and defeat.

The packaging is as lovely as an album of this calibre deserves. The well-pressed vinyl version arrives in a gatefold sleeve hewn from chunky cardboard, with two inner sleeves for the single disc (one’s a poly-lined paper article designed for the proper protection of delicate vinyl, the other features pictures of Nudie suits in the wild and is strictly for show) and a complimentary copy of the CD in its own little picture sleeve. Enfolded with care and attention in its every aspect, this is the pure, distilled essence of Wilco, with no obfuscating sonic disguises, and its mighty fine.

WILCO / JONATHAN WILSON Manchester Academy 25 October 2011

 

This evening turns out to be probably the pleasantest gig-going experience I’ve ever had at the Academy, which is normally a bit of a trial by venue for any music lover who might have inadvertently wandered in. Firstly, judging by the way the touts outside are offering to beat the box office price, it isn’t a sell-out, so the sightlines from my traditional vantage point just in front of the mixing desk are much better than usual, with a total absence of people jostling back and forth to the bar. Secondly, later confirmed by my ears the next morning, it’s the quietest gig I’ve ever been to here, rendering the earplugs I deploy by default for anything louder than a Van gig pleasantly superfluous.

 

Jonathan Wilson comes recommended, both by the owner of my local independent record shop and me, having heard a track from his “Gentle Spirit” album on a recent Uncut cover disc. As fortune would have it, he and his band play that track, “Desert Raven”, first tonight, its Laurel Canyon and CSN&Y waft being pleasantly familiar. But with each subsequent (and long, barely getting through six tunes in his 45-minute set) song comes another stylistic detour. One wanders into Skynyrdesque jam territory, another begins and ends like early-70s Beach Boys, accurate down to the quasi-mystical lyrics beloved of other Wilsons, but has great swathes of the sound and spirit, if not the actual notes, of the Floyd’s “Echoes” parked in between. In additional weirdness, Wilson’ keyboardist repeatedly sets light to things – some kind of incense, I presume – in what must surely be such a flagrant breach of health and safety regulations I’m amazed the gig isn’t shut down immediately. Entertaining, then, but if Wilson ever manages to transcend those fairly obvious influences he could be much more than that.

 

Wilco are very much more than that, of course. Playing a setlist drawing heavily on recently released new album “The Whole Love”, Jeff Tweedy takes about half the evening to open up, after which he’s almost chatty. He thanks us for being more appreciative than the previous night’s audience, whom he declines to name and shame but which the internet reveals to be Glaswegian, dismissing them as “rocking oil paintings”. When somebody yells for the smoke machine to be turned off due to it making a “stupid hissing noise”, Tweedy points out that the sound in question is coming from the PA, and that “it’s analogue…it’s real life”.

 

“Via Chicago” arrives decorated with bursts of distorted, clattering chaos, but “At Least That’s What You Said” has some of its tension drained by deviating from the recorded version’s astonishing, corrosive guitar solo. “Box Full Of Letters”, from the band’s oft-neglected debut “A.M.”, is perhaps the biggest surprise of the evening, but “One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)” is undoubtedly its highlight. Normally, playing a 12-minute predominately acoustic song about conflicts of faith mid-set would signal a stampede to the bar. It so doesn’t here, and at its close somebody yells “Thank you!”, surely succinctly summing up the wider feeling in the room.

 

A very good performance, then, but a contrarian setlist pointedly avoids fan favourites: nothing is played from early magnum opus “Being There”, for example, and I’ll have to wait before I finally, if ever, get to hear them perform “Poor Places”. (Ironically they squandered both opportunities the previous night.) Nevertheless, there’s so much goodness here it seems ungrateful to ask for more.

 

WILCO The Whole Love (dBpm)

 

Wilco’s eighth album, and first on their own label, the camel-capped dBpm, is as enthralling as almost any of their others (aside from the untouchables of their country-rock and experimental phases, “Being There” and “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” respectively). “Art Of Almost” opens proceedings, all itchy and glitchy like an American(a) Radiohead or late-period Blur, its melody built from irregular, skittering rhythms and a Nels Cline guitar solo that sounds like one of a Crazy Horse-fronting Neil Young’s sped up to 45rpm. It makes the likes of the single “I Might”, which follows, sound a little prosaic by comparison, until you notice how this crisp and bouncy bopper is exotically instrumented with fuzz bass, glockenspiel, a thin, reedy organ sound and a Stooges sample. (Radiohead could never do this!)

 

The heartland of the album oscillates between delicious Big Starry rockers corroded by sonic adventuring (“Dawned On Me”, “Born Alone”, “Standing O”) and icy, not-quite-ballads (“Sunloathe”, the string-soaked wistfulness of “Black Moon”, “Open Mind”, “Rising Red Lung”) full of Jeff Tweedy’s opaque, inscrutable lyricism. Breaking these moods are de facto title track “Whole Love”, jaunty glam-lite like a jangly “Jean Genie”, and “Capitol City”, which feels like a Randy Newman-penned showtune with its bustling sound effects and synthetic Dixieland jazz. Better than all of this, though, and undoubtedly my favourite song of 2011, are the 12 minutes of “One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)”, a meditation on faith and mortality whose deceptively simple, intricate web of melody and meaning is over far too soon. And there it ends, on the CD at least. The (astonishingly good sounding) vinyl version appends a bonus cover of Brian Patten’s “Sometimes It Happens”, an endearing, uncomplicated Lennon-esque little thing that’s a marvel of lucidity compared with what precedes it, which isn’t a criticism of a single second of this wonderful album.

Billy Bragg & Wilco

Golden Smog

Jeff Tweedy

Uncle Tupelo

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