New Music 06/30: Wilco, Tortoise, Ohbijou
Members of Wilco demonstrate their joie de vivre upon the release of the band's seventh album, Wilco (The Album). From left: Pat Sansone, Mikael Jorgensen, Jeff Tweedy, Glenn Kotche, Nels Cline and John Stirratt. (Warner Music Canada)
Free Wilco: Let me begin my review of Wilco (The Album) by saying that 2002's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot stands as my favourite release by Wilco (the band). Recorded during a particularly trying and tumultuous period for both Jeff Tweedy and his bandmates (see Sam Jones's painful documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart for proof), YHF marked a more experimental swerve away from the pristine sunshiney roots-pop that dominated Wilco's earlier work.
Though it received many accolades (including the top spot in the Village Voice's Pazz & Jop poll that year and a perfect 10 from Pitchfork), the album polarized fans and critics. To this day, I think YHF's fragmented sounds and slight psychedelic flourishes comprised the most raw and honest songs Tweedy's produced to date. That album was the sound of not only a man being consumed by his own psychic hobgoblins, but a band unraveling in real-time: By the time YHF hit the streets, long-time member Jay Bennett had left the band; it wasn't too long after that Tweedy entered rehab to address his addiction to painkillers. (Bennett's recent death, allegedly the result of ODing on pain meds, is a very sad coda to this story.)
I say all this because I maintain Wilco's never quite lived up to the thrilling heights and excruciating pathos Tweedy and co. managed to convey on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Their subsequent album, A Ghost Is Born, felt like a contrived, performative mess of abrasive guitar shredding and slick riffs, while 2007's Sky Blue Sky was dismissed by many as a dull foray into unimaginative dad rock.
On their latest, Wilco (the band) sound complacent. In this case, though, that's not entirely a bad thing. The songs on Wilco (The Album) reveal a formerly grafted-together collective that's now fused in place, foreign bodies that have reattached and formed a thick skin. Opener Wilco (the song) is a cheeky, chugging salvo with faint whiffs of Beck's Odelay. A repeated siren motif howls over a smart marching drum beat while Tweedy coyly reassures us that, against all odds, "Wilco will love you, baby."
Jaunty harmonies, punchy saloon piano and well-mixed strings make You Never Know sound a bit like the theme song for some wacky '70s sitcom -- perhaps a lost gem from Norman Lear's oeuvre, based on sly lyrics like "Come on children / You're acting like children / Every generation thinks / it's the end of the world." The tightly-wound Bull Black Nova is a dissonant, insistent little chant reminiscent of Spoon's I Turn My Camera On.
Aside from those few uptempo moments, the songs here tend toward the breezy yacht rock side of the spectrum. Our own Feist shows up for a tender, whispery duet on You and I, a clever analysis of love and denial that could've been a 70s AM radio hit for Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers. Country Disappeared is a proud heir to the soft-rock throne once inhabited by Michael McDonald and his compatriots, all muted piano, brushed cymbals and falsetto bits, while album-closer Everlasting Everything gilds the lily with mawkish surges of strings -- a shame, since it takes away from the rather Zen themes of the song. The standout is the spidery Solitaire, which has the understated grace of a Nick Drake tune.
The most notable thing about Wilco (The Album) is its subtlety. It's a stronger album than its two studio predecessors, largely because Tweedy and his fellow Wilco-ites have chilled out and no longer feel compelled to engage in desperate wannabe rock-god showboating. But it's also bolstered by the same spirit of discovery and innovation that defined Yankee Hotel Foxtrot -- the difference is that the novel sonic textures and virtuosic feats here are so well integrated that it takes a couple listens to tease them out. Pay close attention to Solitaire, and you'll notice the shimmering Hammond organ, quiet slide guitar and a spacey synth that sounds like a stone making ripples in a still pond. This isn't an album that'll blow you out of the water right away, but it leaves its mark over time.
Tortoise inch along: Tortoise were pioneers in establishing and evolving the '90s post-rock scene in Chicago (a de facto HQ for the subgenre at the time). These days, the influential Midwestern collective seem more invested in applying their avant-garde approach to a grab-bag of genres. On their latest album, Beacons of Ancestorship, the members of Tortoise turn dance music inside out -- at least, that's a very simplistic description of the lean, spare beatscapes, jazzy freakouts and pulsating rhythmic loops they've crafted here.
Beacons boasts a wide range of moods and styles. The fantastic Prepare Your Coffin is a beefy, muscular barnstormer that opens with stomping heavy metal bass, pummeling drums and a shrill, headbanging riff. The drums quickly become a frenetic, syncopated whirlwind; the riffs mellow, overlap and occasionally catch you off-guard with digitally-manipulated hiccups.
High Class Slim Came Floatin' In begins as a blissed-out cloud of dubby downtempo chillout music, then abruptly snaps into an ominous but playful section that resembles video-game soundtracks before zig-zagging again, first toward fuzzy synths and syncopated, clicky beats, then to a hypnotic loop of propulsive crashes and hypnotic bloops. Northern Something is cool and airy, a kind of computerized version of bossa nova. The Fall Of Seven Diamonds Plus One is slinky music for a spy film, with the added intrigue of percussion that sounds like a rattling chain.
If you think these disparate tracks sound a bit disconnected, you're right: Beacons falters when it comes to maintaining a consistent thread. The Tortoise crew tries to compensate by peppering the album with several short interludes. Clocking in at under two minutes, tracks like Penumbra and de Chelly are too short to feel like songs in their own right, but they provide some of the prettiest moments on the album.
Awesome Ohbijou: Toronto octet Ohbijou has a lot going on. In any given song, you can hear broad strokes of bowed cello, buoyant violin, exuberant drumming, strummed guitars, steady bass and even sprinklings of mandolin and ukulele here and there. And though their triumphant new album, Beacons, is much denser and more dynamic than the group's 2006 debut, Swift Feet For Troubling Times, the talented players maintain a clear focus on every track, using bandleader Casey Mecija's warm hug of a voice as a centrepiece to ground even their most ambitious orchestral compositions. Mecija's clear, hopeful vocals really do act as a beacon, guiding the listener through the fairytale forests she and her bandmates create through their lush arrangements.
The key to their magic is Mecija's well-constructed melodies, which maintain an element of tension and drive the songs forward without sacrificing their vulnerable emotional punch. Wildfires, one of the best tracks on Beacons, is a great illustration of her skill. The song starts with an anticipatory hum and twinkling chimes; around the 30-second mark, Mecija cuts to the chorus. It's a simple, lilting refrain -- "And it'll be no, no / no, no-oh, no / surprise" -- that packs a wallop thanks to the melodic intervals. She poses a hesitant question in a perfect fourth, answers it with a perfect fifth, waffles with a few semitones, and leaves you hanging with the suspended chord.
From there, Wildfires explodes into a miniature symphony. Mecija's voice is overlaid with papery sheets of featherweight harmonies and multi-tracked vocals; nimble trebly piano notes skip over the surface of the song; buzzing melodica and vibrato-enhanced cello share notes; mighty bass and drums boom like thunder. But even in the loudest and most layered moments -- as when many tiny Caseys sigh amidst a tattoo of rat-a-tat beats and an avalanche of beautiful noise -- you can hear the spare elegance of its basic skeleton.
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