Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Wilco - 'The Whole Love' Review

The Whole Love
dBpm Records

During their career Wilco have been perceived by many as a contrary bunch, shifting stylistically between albums and line-ups; this stigma is one that frontman Jeff Tweedy has been eager to dismiss whenever the subject of his integrity has come into question, rather he wishes to be perceived purely as a songwriter who is interested in one thing; the song, and how best to serve it. And so when Wilco delivered their 4th studio LP to Reprise Records in 2001, the radio-listener conscious major label decided to pass, deeming the record too difficult to market, dropped the band and sent them on their way. As it happened Yankee Hotel Foxtrot proved to be the bands most successful effort yet, allowing them to drop their Alt. Country poster boy image, paving the way for the band who was to be labeled "America's answer to Radiohead". Fast forward 10 years, and the revolving door of band members seems to have jammed shut with their finest line up yet. Their live shows have bloomed into an all encapsulating experience covering material from nearly all of their previous records (see the brilliant live DVD "Ashes of American Flags"). Sadly this newly founded confidence hasn't always worked well in the studio. That's not to say they have produced bad records, it just seems to me the band were still testing the water, but now with their new self-produced record (and the first released on their own newly formed record label dBpm) Wilco sounds like a band finally firing on all cylinders.

The album's opener 'Art of Almost' is the only track on offer here that really delves into the crazy world of the electronic freak out that has been explored on previous records. Kinetic buzzes, bleeps and glitches flow alongside the rock solid rhythm section of Glenn Kotche on Drums and bassist John Stirratt, who delivers one of the dirtiest, and dare I say it, funkiest bass lines ever committed to a Wilco record. Tweedy croons over the chaos with his cut-up lines and phrases, while guitarist Nels Cline intermittently cuts through the din with chord stabs and arpeggios. Just as the song comes to it's conclusion it starts up again, this time paving the way for the biggest guitar freak out since Sky Blue Sky's 'Impossible Germany', only a hell of alot louder and faster.

After the aural onslaught of the opening track Wilco slide into the acoustic groove of the album's first single 'I Might', this song most of all shows off the talents of this band as a whole and as individuals. Mikael Jorgensen's chirpy hammond organ bounces along side Tweedy's effervescent acoustic work and another brilliant bass line from Stirratt, Cline's sinewy, distorted slide guitar adds the vinegar to this otherwise bubblegum sweet pop number, and much like Johnny Greenwood's chain-saw-buzz-stops in 'Creep', sets this song alight.

The ethereal 'Sunloathe' follows, with Pat Sansone taking the lead on piano while the rest of the band provide a swathe of dream like sound washes and prepared percussion until the 2 minute mark when the drums strike up and Cline's 12 string guitar drops in. There's more than a hint of Sgt. Pepper here, especially in the Lennon/McCartney styled backing harmonies and unusual chord patterns.

'Dawned On Me' possesses the album's first toe-tapping, head nodding, gem of a chorus, with Tweedy professing "I can't help it if I fall in love with you again, I'm calling just to let you know it dawned on me." With it's lush arrangement, instrumentation and heartfelt lyrics this track oozes summer sun and is enough to carry anyone through the coming wintry months.

'Black Moon' takes the album down a step, with a finger picked, country tinged number, complete with sweeping strings and pedal steel guitars, Tweedy delivers a near whisper through the track asking "I'm waiting for you, waiting forever, are you awake now too?".

We're back in sunshine territory now with "Born Alone", again we're carried along through the verse by Tweedy's upbeat vocals and another toe-tapping back beat from Kotche, until the instrumental refrain which sees Nels Cline rioting through a sugar sweet guitar riff until the song ultimately culminates in the band blasting it's way through an ever descending power chord assault.

Once again the band returns to it's country roots with 'Open Mind', Tweedy delivering heart warming lines such as "I could base my whole existence upon the cherry strands of your gold hair".

The next track 'Capitol City' is a bit of an odd one stylistically, even for Wilco. This is a jolly, jazz inflected ditty, replete with the odd Grandaddy style arpeggiator and some barber shop backing vocals thrown in for good measure, immediately standing out and yet fitting perfectly with the albums constant dynamic shift.

Following that 'Standing O' blasts into action with all guitars blazing, in many ways it's very similar to the other more upbeat numbers on the album, in that it features familiar key board punches and Nels Cline rips it up throughout but it still manages to hold itself with Tweedy's penchant for a strong melody, culminating in another huge sing-along chorus.

'Rising Red Lung' is another finely tuned acoustic number, again showcasing the band's unnerving ability to create dramatic sound collages, while Tweedy once again in a near whisper delivers more of his trademark quasi cut-up lyrics: "I want a wig that's been blown by something unknown, buried under a mile of snow."

The album's title track 'Whole Love' slips back into the groove with swung acoustic guitars, shimmering lead lines and Tweedy doubling up his vocals in whispered baritone and cracked falsetto simultaneously, resulting in a group vocal refrain chanting on the song's title, before the band are granted another psychedelic wigout; this one far removed from the opening track boasts delicately tumbling drums, sweeping synths and pitch-twisted guitar lines echoing throughout as the song quietly resolves.

'One Sunday Morning' continues the album's theme of alternating between upbeat songs and slower, acoustic numbers, only this time Tweedy's acoustic strumming is backed up fully by the band with Kotche providing a brushed snare (complete with egg shaker), Sansone back on piano duties (and a spattering of glockenspiel), while Nels Cline manufactures lap-steel like shimmers on his guitar (according to the sleeve notes Mikael Jorgensen provides 'wavetable scrubbing'...? Whatever the hell it is, it's working). The song flourishes into an almost ambient middle section before starting up again instrumentally; pockets of warm free form noise rise up and float along and then drop again until after nearly 12 minutes the song, and the album, fades out.

Wilco are a band I've know about for a long time, but I hadn't really given them much attention until this past year or so (in which time I've devoured all the albums, watched the DVD's, read the book and now I'm about to delve into their bewildering world of side projects), and so this is as a result my first ever brand new Wilco release, one that I'm hearing and holding in my hands for the first time alongside everyone else who has bought into the band over the years. It's a great feeling to finally catch up with a band, and for that matter catch up with a loyal fanbase that have followed them since the beginning. The feeling is made all the better for knowing that this really is the band's best album since YHF, and I can feel justified in pestering everyone I know into listening to it.

Harry Rhodes

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