Friday, September 9, 2011

Review: Wilco Refocuses On "The Whole Love"

Never have I been so anxious for an album to end.

A curious reaction to my first taste of the new LP by this blog's most ballyhooed band. But that was exactly how I felt earlier this week: checking my iPod's screen, urging each track to slide past. Listening wasn't a chore or anything--quite the opposite. It's not that the album was too long, either. After all, surely Tweedy and crew read the Musical Surgery piece I wrote on them last year and steered clear of such dangerous waters.

I desired to hear the final strains of The Whole Love because it's a damned good album. I simply didn't want it to run off the rails, and the less opportunities available to do that, the better. Unfortunately, Wilco's past two efforts have trained me to expect that at least some measure of Teva-clad dad rock might creep into the mix. And while this new one certainly flirted with that, the album ultimately thrived without any references to lawn-mowing.

I think part of my anxiety was borne out of the fact that the album's first five tracks are tremendous. The opener, "Art of Almost", might lead one to believe that The Whole Love would be a hyper-progressive, dark affair. And while it is both of those things at times, that's certainly no way to describe it on the whole. But at any rate, it's a fantastic song, as is second track "I Might", the fuzz-rock lead single we'd heard a while back.

"Sunloathe" is a slow-burner, featuring a Flaming Lips studio wash and the vaguely emo-ish titular lyric, "I loathe the sun."  It's followed by "Dawned On Me", which was among the first to spring up at live shows. What might have been a schmaltzy feelgood pop rock track were it done by 2009's Wilco instead achieves a certain Bennett-era richness.

"Black Moon" is next, and it's one of the album's strongest tracks. Low, brooding ambient-folk is something Wilco does better than just about anyone. It's not abstract like, say, "Radio Cure", but it's indicative of the unique approach to gloomy folk for which the band's become famous.

The next three tracks are where things get a bit unstable. From an arrangement standpoint, "Born Alone" falls somewhere between the unadorned feel of Sky Blue Sky and the upbeat charm of Summerteeth. Unfortunately, the post-chorus guitar line, which mimics the vocal melody, is highly abrasive and comes off as a tad lazy. I would have expected a complementary arrangement instead of a grating reprise of the melody we've already heard ad nauseam.

"Open Mind" is a pretty, if unimaginative, Nashville-tinged waltz with C+ lyrics but it's a serviceable track from a flow perspective. The album's weakest moment follows in "Capitol City". "Here, a Randy Newman song. Enjoy!" Indeed, it fits the bill for Newman-approved songcraft: bouncy shuffle, recitation of big city minutia, blues-seventh chords en masse. It's "Walken" without the heart. It picks up a bit of steam at the end, but on the whole, it comes perilously close to derailing the album.

Things get back on track with the jaunty "Standing O", a caffeinated romp that has me forgiving them for "Capitol City" by minute two. Tweedy's vocal turn is fascinating on this one, a bit more manic and wiggly than usual but it suits him and the song well.

"Rising Red Lung" is another acoustic brooder, a latter-era "Dash 7" with a soothing guitar-centric arrangement that provides a nice late-album rest. The ensuing title track is snappy and lovable, no great creative achievement, but do they all need to be? It's charming in the way some of the more lighthearted Mermaid Avenue material is; close your eyes and you'll see the cartoon blue jays swirling around as the band plays on. Also, it's begging to score the final scene of a romantic comedy some day. Look for it in a theater near you.

Perhaps the album's most classically Wilco track, "One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)" blooms untraceably across a dozen minutes. Jeff Tweedy reminds us why his voice is such an effective vehicle for pained lyrics: "Outside I look lived in," he admits over softly fingerpick acoustic and a faint but steady rimshot. The song--its title referencing the prominent author who will now see a spike in sales among aging hipsters--may be the album's finest moment, and because of that, I'm left with a feeling of giddy satisfaction.

Who knows how the critics will react, but as far as this blog is concerned: well done, Wilco. While I was prepared to accept the diminishing returns in the studio, I hadn't written off the band as a creative force, and that faith was rewarded. I don't know that this album will ultimately fall in with the truly elite Wilco efforts (the stretch spanning Being There to A Ghost Is Born), but I can already sense it will be a legitimately respected member of the discography.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Low Anthem is quitting...or taking a break...or something...

I don't know why I insist on using my own shitty iPhone concert photos, but here were are.

As obtuse announcements go, this one rates up there with lowercase Radiohead website statements and rambling Ryan Adams Facebook posts. Indeed, the Low Anthem sent out a somewhat ominous epistle to its mailing list that starts off as a farewell letter but then takes a turn for the optimistic.

Indeed, the e-mail began the way most "Dear Fan," letters do:
"It was nearly 3 years ago when we first self-released Oh My God, Charlie Darwin."
After that, they wax reflective for a while--taking a shot at "watery bullshit known as indie music" and championing their purist approach--but never quite drop the bomb. They seem to suggest that their upcoming tour (which brashly ignores Charleston) will mark the final pages of this "chapter." Chapter of what, you ask? I don't know. Part of me thinks they're just sick of promoting their 2011 LP Smart Flesh, or maybe they're recognizing the implausibility of playing their style of music in front of larger audiences. Anyway, they do provide some concrete optimism:
"It's not the end."
"There is no end."
Aw, damnit. So it's just one of those cryptic teaser things that alludes to the power of the recorded sound and communal ownership of music? To be fair, they do make light of the dozens of unrecorded songs they've written and some other ambitions, but invite the conclusion that the end of their tour will mark a period of extended dormancy. Maybe Ben Knox Miller will have time to work on that screamo side project he's been  considering [citation needed].

Regardless, they've left us with an admirable canon (including bonafide new classic in Charlie Darwin) and me personally with a memorable concert experience and a sweet T-shirt. So best of luck to TLA in their endeavors, and we'll look forward to catching up with you down the road!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

August 26, 2011: Gillian Welch

Step into my musical Wayback machine, and let's set the dial to 2004. A scrawny college sophomore and burgeoning music nut, I was fast broadening my horizons but still something of a neophyte. My obsession with Ryan Adams carried over from freshman year, although at this point I was more interested in Whiskeytown and his vast unreleased canon than, say, Gold. I was starting to take an interest in Wilco--one of my first orders of business back at school was downloading the much-ballyhooed Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in its entirety. By the end of sophomore year, I'd blown through the Wilco catalog much in the way I'd done with Ryan Adams the year before. This was also the year I'd discover Elliott Smith, Iron and Wine, the Shins, and a handful of other alt/indie/whatever required listening.

Amidst the influx, I remember vividly the first time I heard Gillian Welch's "Revelator": preparing to leave for class, looking for reasons to put off the commute. A few successive listens of Gillian's opus did the trick. I was quick to recognize it as one of the best songs I'd ever heard (no hyperbole here) and developed the urge to see Gil and Dave perform it live. Unfortunately, a few opportunities slipped through my fingers. That, paired with the tandem's lengthy period of studio dormancy, meant a seven-year holding pattern, during which I'd have to busy myself with ad nauseam consumption of their back catalog.  But finally, with the new album came an immense tour, and with it a stop in Charleston.

The Charleston Music Hall is a criminally underutilized venue, a seated theater situated on John Street, half a block from the bustle of midtown King. It's a gorgeous theater that seats just shy of a thousand, and there isn't a poor vantage point in the place. My past experiences at the Hall? A night of jazz with Wynton Marsalis and his big band, and then ticket scanning duties a Bryan Adams show. So I knew the venue, although neither experience was in my wheelhouse the way Gillian's was sure to be.

I bragged a few months ago about our stealthily obtained front row tickets. My hubris was not rewarded, as it turns out the venue added a row of chairs ahead of the front row, relegating us to the SECOND row. What an outrage! #1stworldproblems Still, we had a fantastic vantage point, about a dozen seats stage right. The stage set-up was refreshingly minimalistic. Each performer's spot was marked with a mic for vocals and another aimed at the instrument. Situated in the background was a refueling station of sorts: a small table flanked by instrument stands. On the table were two glasses of water and a brown jewelry box filled with picks and harmonicas. All that was left was for Gil and Dave to take the stage.

The lights fell, and out strolled the couple, each toting a guitar and Gillian with a banjo as well. No roadies, no pretense. They looked like two kids at a recital, fighting back smiles while they tuned amidst the applause. Gillian is a tiny woman, all elbows and angles. It's like she's made out of spindles with a pale white linen sewn over. She wore a sundress and cowboy boots, her red hair hanging in strings about her shoulders. Dave looked dapper in a grey (or maybe olive) suit, black boots and a massive Stetson. They had the look of a traveling mountain-folk duo, alright, but did they have the chops?

That, of course, is a rhetorical question. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings are stunning purveyors of their niche, a sort of refined old-time folk with a lyrical focus. Their harmonies unify so seamlessly that it's almost demoralizing to those of us who aren't so skilled, but I suppose that's the byproduct of nearly 20 years of collaboration. I noticed that in lieu of counting off to start a song, Gil would hum a bar of the vocal melody off-mic before she and Dave set in. It was a beautiful touch, but its purpose was practical, which made it even more affecting. It's hard not to dub the stunning performance of "Revelator" song of the night. As with most of the set, it wasn't far removed from the album version, but why should it be? Most of their stuff is recorded live-in-the-studio as it is. An extended solo was the only distinction from its studio form, but the audience welcomed the hefty dose of Rawlings' expressive guitar work. Rawlings played his trademark 1930s Epiphone archtop, flatpicking his way through the thousands of springy notes that made up his licks.

Other standouts were Harrow and the Harvest tracks "That's the Way It Will Be", "Tennessee", set-opener "Scarlet Town", and "Six White Horses". The latter featured Dave on banjo and harmonica, and Gil providing hambone percussion and midsong clogging. It was charming, believe it or not. They introduced "Elvis Presley Blues" by deeming it their holiday song, "if you consider Elvis' death day a holiday." The only miss of the night was David Rawlings' turn performing "Sweet Tooth", a track from 2009's A Friend of a Friend. The song is fine, but it wore on for ages and by the fifth verse about candy, I found myself wondering about the fantasy football draft I was missing. The night's finest moment, indisputably, was the second encore. The duo stepped to the front of the stage, off-mic, and announced that they'd like to leave us with the first song they'd ever played together. They set into a delicate version of "Long Black Veil" that managed to silence the surprisingly gabby audience.

To echo the analysis of a friend with whom I attended, it was exactly what I expected it to be. A masterful performance by two musicians who have a long-fermented compatibility and elite songwriting chops. I can't imagine a soul left that sold-out Music Hall underwhelmed. As we walked out into the night in search of a post-show pint, I still felt Gil's silken coos and Dave's nimble guitar lines dancing in my ears. Seven years after I first heard "Revelator" in that tiny apartment bedroom in Columbia, I can happily confirm that it was well worth the wait.

Setlist, as photographed by Gil and Dave's twitter feed. Good luck deciphering their shorthand. Following that, some crappy pictures. Unfortunately, the venue forbade photography, so I had to be sneaky and it was low-lit.