Ok, I know I haven’t written for the forum in a while now. Told Sharkboy I was just too busy, but in reality…LAZY is a much more accurate description. Anyway, after a conversation last night with Finface about Wilco’s new album he said to me, (in between assassinating some poor shmendrick on BAS) “You should review the record on Sharkforum, Blockhead!”
Interviews are always misquoted, that’s just how it goes. It must be tough to get it right. Usually they’re done over a cell phone, last about 10 minutes and when they hit print, they sound like the Tarzan version of your conversation. The last interview I did had me leaving town forever. It was so completely out of this world from front to back, all I could do was laugh it off, after assuring my parents that I wasn’t half way to Texas with my family in tow.
The other reason is… a couple of these guys are friends of mine. How can you write about your friends without making it seem like a toast at a wedding? Then it hit me! Just talk about the sound coming out of your stereo.
After seeing one of Wilco’s last shows of their previous tour, it was pretty obvious; to me at least, that they had really and truly become a band. What does this mean? It’s not about being tight. It’s more about the sort of unspoken conversation the players have between each other. Not having to think. Muscles reacting before the mind can get in the way, as if absorbing a book without hearing the voice in your head. The very best part of a heroin high, without all of its infinite negatives. (This is why the be-boppers were drawn to it like moths to the flame.) I remember telling someone at the show that the next album would more than likely be their best album yet.
I can hear Wesley right now screaming, “SO WHAT ABOUT THE FUCKING ALBUM! SHEESH!!!” Shut up and paint a blob, Sharkboy!
OK…here we go. After listening to this album in its entirety a couple of times, it is clear who’s the boss of Wilco. THE SONG! It’s so rare to find a band that willingly gives itself up to a song so effortlessly. It’s why the Ellington band was always such a miracle. That Ellington could persuade such harmonious allegiance in a bunch of thrill seeking hipster geniuses was a mystery to me in my youth. I learned, by doing so later, it was his way of writing such sturdy numbers and at the same time helping his players to recognize the genius in themselves that kept this shark of a band constantly moving forward. Duke was the duke. But the song was king.
And so it is for Wilco on Sky Blue Sky. Each player reaching his own beautiful epiphany channeled through the telling of a song. No one more the humble servant than the Duke of Wilco himself, Jeff. His voice and playing on this record are as clear as a bell. The songs so in the moment you feel as if you could actually pinpoint the time of day they were written. As these songs float by on my stereo I get the sense they were composed before there was an alphabet. Don’t misunderstand me on this. This is a good thing. It’s that the labor of it is transparent. Like a great painting pushed and battled with, finally made to balance in the instantaneous. Something all songwriters strive, or should strive to do.
The beauty of this record lies in its melodic unpredictability, from the chord changes and stretching of them to the death defying twists and turns of its solos and heads, and it does so without a pretentious bone in its musical body.
Look at it this way. Aaron Copeland once said upon looking at the score of Stravinsky’s “Rite Of Spring” that even the notes on the page seemed like they were asking each other, “What the hell are you doing here?” Now listen to any cut on the George Jones record, “The Bradley Sessions” and tell me you can predict the next note George is going to sing. If you say you can, you’re a fucking liar. That’s what I’m talking about!
The other beautiful thing about the recording and mixing of this record is that you can tell all of the big time mixing was done by the musicians themselves the day of the session. In other words, the tones of the guitars and keys blended at the source and not gacked or geeked into submission at the mix or by some piss-crazed producer. In fact, there’s no outside producer on the cd. It should almost say “recorded by” on the jacket like the old days, instead of “produced by” Wilco. (The word producer didn’t show up on records until the 60’s)
When I started writing this review of Sky Blue Sky I thought I’d go down the cd from song to song, reviewing as I went along. But this sucker is a real, dyed in the wool album and should be listened to that way. Who am I to break it up? Instead I’m going to talk about the bands members.
John Stirrat, as always, turns in a perfect “second melody for free” bass performance. What I mean by that is this: The best bass players from Motown’s James Jamerson to pop session wonder Joe Osborne always gave you a sort of duet to the melody of the song. As time went on, you might find yourself singing the bass line just as much as the vocal line. Not the usual thump thump along with the kick. Stirrat’s turned out to be right up there with the best of these old Titans.
Mikael Jorgensen’s piano work as always transcends the instrument and can take a simple chord, spilling it out to such imploded expanse that the words it’s playing under seem to open up like flowers. He is not a rock & roll piano player. Neither was Garth Hudson. Good company? You bet.
Pat Sansone has been the secret weapon of so many great bands. He’s another “second melody” guy. (No wonder that he and Stirrat co-lead the fine band “Autumn Defense”) I’ll probably listen to this record for some time to come, due in no small part to Pat’s beautiful interwoven melodies.
I’ve never met a man more crazy about rhythm than Glenn Kotche. Right now he’s probably listening to a car trying to parallel park outside his window and figuring out a way to incorperate it into his next composition. His drumming on this record is beautifully understated like a pop Ed Blackwell making the bigger moments all that much bigger, including one section of a song where he riffs around a slightly out of time, drunken sounding phrase. Think John Lee Hooker on drums.
Nels Cline! Holy fuck! There’ve been a few guitar players over the years who carved out a sound totally their own. Some famous: John Mc Laughlin, John Cipolina, Robert Fripp, Denny Dias. Some not so famous: Ralph Towner, Sonny Sharrock, Robert Nighthawk. I only mention these guitarists because when I first heard them, I knew I was hearing something different from the rest of the pack. Same with your playing, man. A new guitar beast is born!
AND TWEEDY? YOU DID ALLRIGHT TOO!!!
The lovely thing about a great record is that you can never own it… least of all the people who made it. It takes on its own life, floating through the radio waves from town to town. It represents a place in time and becomes the past from the first note you hear wafting through your stereo. Nothing is timeless. Nothing.
Do me a favor. When you buy this album, listen to it a few times from front back before committing it to your ipod jukebox. Give it its place and time. Then, let her go. You can bet Wilco’s already moved on to the next one.