Ashes of An American Band

I failed to score an interview with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, but still managed to get my thoughts on his great American band together and profile Wilco in today’s Boulder Weekly:

An American Band
Wilco simply loves their country and its rich musical history
by Adam Perry for Boulder Weekly
7/2/09

Still-thriving jazz legends like Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman aside, if you’re looking for modern ambassadors of American music it’s pretty hard to overlook Wilco. Those flashy, embroidered white suits Wilco front-man Jeff Tweedy has been wearing onstage for the past couple years aren’t the only patriotic thing about the Chicago rock ’n’ roll band — please check out Mermaid Avenue — but Tweedy’s suits do harken back to the days of Elvis and Hank Williams, representing a kind of American music that connected down-home superstars with the everyday people who loved ’em.

Like Neil Young and others before them, Wilco is partly famous for making music that their record label literally refused to release, stating that the music they’d recorded didn’t sound like what had come before. In 2002, Wilco was rebuffed by Reprise Records for turning in Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (now the band’s most popular album) because they feared it was too weird — experimental pop musicians Glenn Kotche and Jim O’Rourke were a big part of the recording and mixing — and didn’t have a “radio single.” In the process, Wilco lost two founding members and a record label, but the album went gold, got a rare perfect rating from Pitchfork and was named album of the year for 2002 by the Village Voice. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is now seen as a classic American album. Heck, it even came on randomly in the café where I’m writing this article. What could be more patriotic — and, in this case, successful — than dissent and non-conformity?

Although many critics and fans perceived the two towers on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s cover (actually a rendering of Marina City in Chicago) and the lines “tall buildings shake / voices escape singing sad, sad songs” as references to Sept. 11, 2001, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was actually recorded before 9/11. However, this doesn’t mean Wilco has never been in tune with the pulse of America or concerned with patriotism, at least patriotism that doesn’t approach either the jingoism of pop-country artists like Toby Keith or the heralded “newsflash” mentality of punks such as The Clash and Crass. Wilco simply loves their country and its rich musical history.

Wilco was formed in 1994 from the remains of Uncle Tupelo, a Belleville, Ill., “alternative Americana” group fronted by Jay Farrar. Tweedy and Farrar butted heads and ended up forming Wilco and Son Volt, respectively, but Uncle Tupelo is now seen as an integral part of American alt-folk history, somehow juxtaposing the Minutemen and the Carter Family. With Tweedy at the helm, Wilco started out playing similarly brash, ragged and soulful rock music (check out A.M. and Being There, for instance) but has gradually become more diverse and unique, drawing inspiration not only from the Replacements and Hank Williams but also more obscure and experimental American rock like Television, John Cale’s Paris 1919 and the aforementioned O’Rourke’s guitar-centric noise-pop. As a testament to Wilco’s integrity-laden passion for unabashed creativity that transcends commercial aspirations, their albums and tours have continued to become more financially successful as their music evolves and band members get the axe (Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt are the only originals left).

2005’s A Ghost Is Born, Wilco’s follow-up to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, was released after Tweedy’s well-publicized stint in rehab and finally brought the spiraling dark embrace of songs like “Red-Eyed and Blue” and “Via Chicago” to a fever pitch, highlighting explosive Crazy Horse-esque jams and eccentric ditties about drug deals and tumultuous relationships. But since 2007’s Sky Blue Sky, Tweedy has shown the “dad-rock” side of his style, singing tunes about pecan pie and domesticity. With the worldwide success of Wilco since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the group has continued to reveal reformed happiness and sometimes-off-putting sincerity.

Wilco has repeatedly expanded their sound, not just vis-à-vis arrangements and subjects, but in terms of literal size. Among others, 50-year-old “improvising guitarist on the loose” Nels Cline was added in 2004 and has exhilarated audiences. However, Cline has not always made total sense in Wilco on-record until last month’s Wilco (the album), which has Cline’s playful Steely Dan-type leads and atmospheric smiles all over Tweedy’s increasingly smooth and heartfelt mid-tempo pop songs. Suddenly, Cline is to Wilco as Adrian Belew was to the Talking Heads.

As per the rest of Wilco (the album), “I’ll Fight” and “Everlasting Everything” are probably the most wistful tunes Wilco has ever recorded, and “You and I,” a sentimental duet with Broken Social Scene and solo Canadian star Leslie Feist, is sort of a mixture between Yankee Hotel Foxtrot-era Wilco and Feist’s silk-poppy 2004 breakthrough Let It Die.

Cline’s ambient guitar on “Deeper Down,” where Tweedy muses “underneath the ocean floor / the part of who we are we don’t explore,” helps that track get almost Styx-like in its near-cheesy prog-rock allusions. But the bulk of Wilco (the album) abandons the lo-fi Allman Brothers multi-guitar language of Sky Blue Sky for something closer to what used to be called A.M. rock.

Most of Wilco traveled to New Zealand last year to play a charity event with Crowded House singer Neil Finn and ended up staying there to record most of Wilco (the album). Now they’re enjoying touring the world in support of the new record (and turning down interviews with the likes of Boulder Weekly), which brings them to Red Rocks on Friday with Okkervil River. To paraphrase ever-present Rolling Stone writer David Fricke: Make no mistake, Wilco is a rock ’n’ roll band.

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