Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Heavy Lifting

I've only listened to The Whole Love a few times so far, and as a super hard core Wilco fan I LOVE it. That said, I can accept the proposition that someone less devoted to the band could enjoy it less than I do. That said, the AV Club review really annoys me. Not because they give it a "B," but because of the condescending, "advice to the band" kind of approach the review takes. It's something nearly worthy of Pitchfork:

As enjoyable as The Whole Love is—and it’s an appreciable improvement over the wan Wilco—it still has some of its predecessor’s slight, low-stakes feel. The Whole Love is an album of reliable, occasionally exceptional, but mostly just solid pleasures from a very good band that doesn’t seem interested in doing the heavy lifting it takes to be great. Wilco’s early records seemed like the product of painful deliberation and unmitigated tension, a real life-or-death proposition; The Whole Love breezes by like a sunny Saturday afternoon among best friends. Now that Wilco has finally found its comfort zone, it might be time to venture elsewhere for a change.

I just have two comments:
1. Wilco "doesn't seem interested in doing the heavy lifting it takes to be great"? What does that mean? If they'd just worked a little harder and shown some dedication they could have written another Yankee Hotel Foxtrot? It's like saying: "what happened to the Martin Scorsese of Goodfellas? If only he'd been willing to do some more heavy lifting, The Aviator could have been just as good, but he lost his nerve."

2. Does he think Wilco needs more "unmitigated tension" to get back to its old self? It reminds me of an interview I once heard with Joni Mitchell from the mid 1970s, in which the interviewer said that lots of her fans thought she'd lost the sense of "vulnerability" that she'd had in her earlier work. She said something to the effect of "maybe I don't want to be so damn vulnerable anymore." Hard to argue with that.


Eric said...

Only have one listen, but I too already LOVE this, in a way that I have not immediately loved a Wilco album since Summerteeth. (YHF became a favorite, but when I first listened to the stream they made available when they were having label troubles, I was underwhelmed). Maybe that's because it's the most Summerteeth-esque album they've made since then. Since I know Tex likes to psychoanalyze Tweedy, we can think of this as his tribute to the late, great Jay Bennett. (I remember you had a great observation about how Summerteeth was Tweedy's love letter to Jay Bennett, YHF was his love letter to Glenn Kotche, Ghost was his love letter to Jim O'Rourke, and Sky Blue Sky was his love letter to Nels Cline. (I may be mixing those up). Maybe I found Wilco (the album) underwhelming because it wasn't his love letter to anyone except, I guess, the sound of Jeff Lynne-produced George Harrison albums). Anyway, really liking this so far, but with only one listen, I can't offer much more than that.

drischord said...

I'm going to respectfully disagree with the idea that this record is in any way inspired by Jay Bennett. Although it's the first one recorded after his death, I don't hear much of his signature hallmarks on here. Most notably, there isn't much in the way of vocal harmonies, and that's always the first thing I think of him adding to various tracks. I also associate Jay with certain "experimental" tones on YHF, but those aren't the same experimental tones I hear on the Whole Love.

So I guess I'd say that The Whole Love feels like Tweedy's love letter to the six-piece band that has been Wilco for the past 3 records. It feels like as an ego-free record as Wilco has ever made. There really isn't anything on here that sounds like a "Jeff Tweedy solo performance" backed by some talented musicians he found. It seems like multiple people have a voice in any given arrangement, and the songs benefit from that.

By that same token, I think you could say "Wilco (The Album)" was Tweedy's love letter to himself, and that's one of the reasons it didn't really work. It seemed like he brought in a bunch of 2/3 completed demos and they knocked them off so fast that they didn't really have time to germinate in the band environment. I felt like that record basically wasted the all-star band we get to hear live, but this one-- while still demonstrating the overall restraint of Sky Blue Sky-- lets everyone shine again. John Stirratt, in particular, has never sounded better.

Eric said...

I won't push the Jay Bennett tribute album thing too hard, since I meant it as a sort of off-the-cuff, tongue-in-cheek remark anyway. But, the bouncy organ in Capitol City, the more traditional rawk guitars of Standing O, the little mellotron and harmony break about a minute into Sunloathe, the way the acoustic guitar line drives I Might, and other moments throughout the record sound straight out of the Bennett-era. (Specifically, Being There/Summerteeth, Being There, Summerteeth, and YHF, respectively). Also, I think there's more vocal harmony on here than the last couple (though I have done nothing scientific to verify that-- I can't remember wilco(the album) that well.

I guess, at the end of the day, it felt like Sky Blue Sky and wilco(the album) were sort of of a piece-- kind of a muted, jammy country-rock -- and felt like a break in the continuity from their last few albums (for better or worse). This one sounds like a more direct successor to Being There/Summerteeth/YHF. I have kind of a visual diagram that I don't have anyway to create, but basically, it feels like they were sort of turning left with Being There and Summerteeth, took a bit of a sharper turn left with YHF and took an even sharper turn with Ghost, but then course corrected way right with SBS and wilco, so that by the end, they were to the right of where they started. And now they've turned back left so that they're kind of back in line with Being There and Summerteeth. (I don't put any value judgments on any of these "turns"-- I'm just talking about what I hear stylistically.)

Eric said...

Also, to be clear-- I don't find it derivative or repetitive of Summerteeth, etc. I think this one does all sorts of interesting things as a direct result of the skill and chemistry of this lineup. I think with my turning diagram up there, what I was getting at was that we had a thesis, antithesis, anti-antithesis, and now, finally, synthesis. But I'll obviously need to live with this one for a while to see if it still resonates like some of the others.

drischord said...

I agree with a lot of what you're saying, although I don't really group Sky Blue Sky and (the album) together. I think Sky Blue Sky alternated between tracks where Tweedy really let the members of his group shine-- especially Nels, but really everyone (let's never forget that awesome full-band build in Walken)-- and Wilco (the album) just felt like the others didn't have enough time to sit with the music.

Case in point: Consider the difference between (the album)'s one jam song, Bull Black Nova, and the trifecta of Walken, Impossible Germany and Side With the Seeds off Sky Blue Sky. The Sky Blue Sky instrumentals just feel like they involve the whole band and show a lot of texture and development over the course of the song. Bull Black Nova sounds like a demo by comparison. That song really bugs me, because I think it has potential to be totally awesome, and they really do so little with it. I attribute that to the idea that the band didn't have much time to experiment before they cut the album. I think another month of jamming on that material would have done wonders for 2/3 of (the album).

And I'm with you in that it'll be hard to really rank The Whole Love beside these other ones until we've all heard it multiple times. One initial thought is that there are some moments on here that flat out remind me of Radiohead. Obviously on the first track, but other places as well. (I think it was Tweedy's decision to go 90% drum machine and bring in Flea to play bass.)

Quinapalus said...

Not sure if you guys saw this article in the AV Club about comparisons between Wilco and Radiohead. I like this writer, he's the one who did that "history of grunge" multi-parter:


drischord said...

Yeah, I did see that article. It did get me thinking that there are no prominent bands (that I know of) that have been publicly mentored by either Wilco or Radiohead. Whereas Radiohead really was mentored by R.E.M.-- in particular, Thom Yorke was mentored by Michael Stipe.

But there's definitely a history of certain bands mentoring others-- Soundgarden being there for Pearl Jam, The Beatles being there for bands on Apple Records, etc. Are there bands that Wilco and/or Radiohead have helped "raise" to some degree that I'm not aware of?