Wilco, ‘Schmilco’ AmIRight? (LOL I friggen love Wilco more than you do)
For those of you who know me, and HELLO out there for those of you who don’t, I am a huge (YUGE) Wilco fan. Last July when Wilco surprise-released Star Wars (LOL, still) it was the first time I every publicly wrote about Wilco. I always said to myself, self, you love Wilco too much to write about them. But I guess people change. Wilco is a twenty-two year old band and I’m guessing if you’re reading this blog, which is exclusively about music, you know who they are and have some knowledge of their cannon. I’m not going to take the time to introduce you to the band (Jeff, John, Glenn, Mikael, Nels, and Pat) or go through their history (s/o my two favorites: Being There and A Ghost Is Born). But what I will do, since we all need a writing exercise here and there, is Live-Blog Schmilco, their newest (out tomorrow 9/9).
One of the many fun things about being a long-term Wilco fan is seeing them have fun with what they do. (Also, Red Eye Chicago just did a fun Q&A with Jeff Tweedy for the story behind ten of their songs, one from each record. Check it out!) Enter: Schmilco. Ha ha, I think to myself. How funny, those silly guys. (I will always laugh at Jeff Tweedy’s jokes no matter how serious or stupid.) So, as all Live-Blogs go, I know nothing about this record, despite being a monstrous fan of the band, I rarely know anything about the actual members (inquire within for my opinions on Nels Cline, which I’m sure we’ll touch on later), and I know all their records by heart, in my sleep, like the back of my arthritic hand. There are 12 tracks, none longer than 4:17, so, let’s do this.
1. Normal American Kids: OK, spoiler, I did read in the above interview I cited^^ (but not about the Schmilco track) that this record is acoustic more so than Star Wars, at least. This one kicks off with an acoustic guitar and Tweedy, deep, aged voice. “High at the time/tied to the grid/always afraid of those normal American kids.” What a lovely line. There are screeching acoustic strings and a backing guitar patter, which is a go-to Wilco layered sound. Dig it. But whenever I hear Tweedy mumble something about being “too high” for something, part of me is like, huh? I know that he’s sober (see: recovered alcoholic and off pain meds, re: addiction, from those headaches of his). There’s nothing more Americana as a Normal American Kid, as an acoustic guitar, and Jeff Tweedy sweetly singing, softly about being under the sheets in his bedroom. It brings me images of a young kid curled up against the radio–a story I’ve read many times, one that precedes my generation. “I always hated those Normal American Kids.” A commentary? Irony? I don’t want to decide yet.
2. If I Ever Was Child: More acoustic guitar and layered lyrics, spiderwebbing some call it, on Tweedy’s vocals. “I’ve never been alone, long enough to know/if I ever was a child.” Tweedy just turned 49 last week so I have it on good assuming authority that he is dealing with mortality, on some human level. People tend to do that as they approach a new decade. This track is steeped in old “alt-country” Wilco (a sub-genre many credit them with starting) and goes right into an acoustic and lightly salted and peppered electric guitar sliding all over the place. I’ll take it. As I said, Being There is my favorite and those twangy tracks that sing the blues and wonder about life (“Red Eyed and Blue” “Forget The Flowers” “Far Far Away”), those are the tracks that got me into Wilco. It’s later when I discovered their love for exploring sound and how they can make and record it, it’s when I fell madly in love with them. How they see music, that it’s bendable and retractable, that you really can do anything you want with it. The love they have as a band for what they do is the in between on their songs and sounds that transmits to the listener. That’s what I love about them.
3. Cry All Day: A slow build up, again, more acoustic guitar. Glenn Kotche, drummer, joined the band in 2001. When you see them play live, you’ve never seen a man sweat the way he does. His ability to keep up and keep improvising amazes me when I see them (see: “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”). At first I thought this song was going to be sad, but here we are being all cheery. Well, at least as cheery as Wilco will let you be: “I had a hole in my heart/I had accompanied me/It kept me holding from rolling/Someone in the something like me.” There’s that wordplay, THANKS JEFF. He always has me second-listening, wondering what he’s really talking about when he’s writing. There’s a cool background guitar, bending sound going on here. They’re moving away from their country vibe into the electronic sound. Then there’s a sound of a bow on a saw of a high-pitched whine. So many timbres to think about. There’s always something new to explore sonically here. Something within the Wilco realm. I get it, they aren’t Radiohead, but they do allow themselves to color outside their lines. “I cry all day/into the light” he says. Me too, Jeff. Me too.
4. Common Sense: More acoustic guitar, more layered voices, but there’s dissonance here with a single strum and backing track. It’s building up to something, with that Nels’ guitar (the loopy, noodley guitar) and a movement on all instruments involved saying, we’re moving forward but there’s no light. So we can’t exactly see where it is we’re going. We just know we’re going there. It’s that experimental sound in this song, the one that pushed me from like to love this band. The lyrics here are disconnected at first listen. Tweedy sings of a “chance encounter” of “common sense” and then more hand claps, wood slaps, clickity-clacks, followed later by what seems like a xylophone being danced upon, rising and swelling. So many weird sounds here, already makes me think its a bit ahead of Star Wars because it’s moving in so many more directions.
5. Nope: Here we have some foot stompin’ folk music. Tweedy’s voice in buried in enough reverb where I can’t quite exactly make out what he’s saying. More background electric guitar. More layered sounds here, muffled enough lyrics so you can only understand every few words. A hook in the background, a simple guitar note-noodle, has me knowing now that I’ll go back to this one again and again. There’s also something enticing about the title, “Nope.” “Won’t you lend me my punch line,” Tweedy sings. There’s another one of those lyrics that strikes me as original. A sort of poetry to their music, where you’re not quite sure what’s going on here until you hear the whole thing. (I once read a quote about poetry, that no one quite understands the poem until they understand everything. Like it’s an all or nothing thing. I don’t necessarily think that with Wilco, but I can see it with this song.)
6. Someone To Lose: Halfway through, I think it’s safe to say that this record’s feel has been established. And, halfway through, we have more electric guitar than we’ve ever had so far on this record. It’s a build up, because they know what their doing, a walk on the neck, a rise in notes, while Tweedy’s voice swells up. Then they both fade out together, as if this track is establishing a front and back of the record. In 2014 Tweedy teamed up with his son Spencer, a drummer, and made the very long, can-be-at-times very sad Sukierae which has a lot of piecing together of acoustic, electric, and percussive-ness natures. This song reminds me of the thick songs they made together on that four-disc (!!) album.
7. Happiness: Beware, everyone, when Tweedy and Wilco sing about “happiness” it’s rarely actually about just that. He’s usually sad, or I guess his level of happiness is just a quiet smirk, “Happiness depends on who you blame,” he sings. “She gave her body to science/so I’m not sure what’s in her place.” Tweedy is always taking someone away and replacing it with something unusual. A good writer? An interesting musician? He writes music that allows me to imagine these scenes, assuming he’s writing from his own life, and see what he might see. I was kind of hoping this record would surprise me in the way The Whole Love did, with its outrageously long tracks (“Art of Almost” and “One Sunday Morning”) but I’m getting more Star Wars vibes than I’d like, as if it’s another “throwaway” and they’re making Schmilco because they can.
8. Quarters: Back to some fingerpicking with his reverbed voice, and, ah, thank god, there’s a electronic, unusual percussion going on here, in patterns and beats. Kotche manages to do more with many different kinds of drums and all the sounds they make that I believe most “indie” “rock” drummers are able to. He seems to be more imaginative with patterns, more mobile than most. This song has those patters but then the guitar strumming and pickin’ are making patterns too. About two minutes in, it sounds like this song is submerged in water, with a glossy aqua tint. We’re transmitting over wave-radio and the sun is shining into the body of cold blue water we’re now floating in. There’s that Wilco I love: a Wilco that has me seeing things, in the best kind of way. The Wilco that puts me into my daydreams.
9. Locator: I wonder what he’s doing with these song titles. Or is Wilco popular enough with their own record label (dBpm) to just make whatever they want into song. But then again, this song sonically sounds unlike the others. There’s a winding, a chanting of Tweedy’s voice, a break, a new guitar being plugged in, and a smattering of electric noise. “Even when I run, I’m crawling.” “Here below” he chants, with “high.” And I’m thinking, when Tweedy is writing about being “high” I don’t think it’s in the stoned sense (amendment to the earlier^^ comment) I think he’s going for escapism. To flee his mind full of headaches, of the cloudiness that he lives with. (Note: Jeff Tweedy has wicked headaches. He was hospitalized for addiction to pain killers literally right before A Ghost Is Born, 2004, came out. There are stories that he put his headache into his guitar solos, that’s why they’re so menacing on Ghost. They won the Grammy for Alternative Album of the Year that year.) This song is doing a lot of wandering back in the days when Tweedy pushed his pain onto his strings and I dig it.
10: Shrug and Destroy: Ah, a nice Iggy and The Stooges hint. Another little Wilco joke, and a mid-western joke at that. Wilco knows their place in history, where they came from, who proceeded them, and that allows them to make jokes like this. It’s fucking adorable. Yet this song couldn’t be less-Iggy. It’s sorrowful, in the way that any Wilco song can be. The piano audibly shows up and Tweedy is whispering so closely to the mic, humming these words closely, as if it were a nursery rhyme. “Nothing is left, rejoice”–this pretty much sums up Wilco’s stasis.
11. We Aren’t The World (Safety Girl): More piano shows up, the plinking of keys, electronic and whatnot. This reminds me of my senior year of college when I drove with friends from Ithaca to Scranton, PA (note: I have only ever traveled out of my state of living to see this band-HAHA) to see Wilco (for the first time!) at the Free Mason’s League Hall (or whatever) and our friend Aaron, a pianist, tagged along. He had just recently discovered Wilco and realized that a lot of their strength is in the piano, how they let it mimic the guitar and also have its own fun. It does a lot of walking on Wilco records, beefing it up far beyond what just a guitar, bass, and drums can do. The piano adds something and its place in Wilco might be the reason I love piano rock, oh, so much. It’s quite lovely. And this “ditty” as I’m now calling it, ends with a feedback of electronic sound that makes me wish this record was doing more.
12: Just Say Goodbye: Wilco are veterans enough to name their final, or at least arrange their songs to have a “so long see you later” at the end. This record kind of ebbs and flows, a lot of the songs sound the same, they have the same distinct feel, which, guess what, records (and sometimes bands) are supposed to have. Its why people revisit their same artists, because they sound like themselves. This record certainly sounds like a Wilco record. It’s more “exciting” than Star Wars. It seems to do more, but Star Wars did rock a little harder. I guess they wanted to go back to a more acoustic vibe. And well, mission accomplished. This final track has that “train comin’ around the bend” type vibe, with ongoing drums, scaling guitars, hints of a tambourine, and Tweedy’s voice crescendoing at just the right times. “Just say goodbye” with a fade out. Yes, this band knows what they’re doing.
Wow this record is only 36 minutes long. I will definitely be listening to it on my walk to work today and revisiting it quite a bit. What I usually don’t do in my “reviews” is discuss where records (or whatever) fit into place within “the culture.” I think that is what critics are supposed to do these days, but honestly, we have no one culture. With free information (while it’s still free) we are able to explore the tiny cracks of sub-cultures and sub-genres. No one person exists in one world (OK, maybe Jeff Tweedy and Wilco do, as they sound like themselves) and Wilco is rarely a band that fits into “trends” these days. (OK, I guess there are trends.) But that’s because Wilco has never been a trendy band, they’ve always done whatever it is they wanted, however they wanted. They’ve been full of surprises and a few let downs (I’m not alone in saying their self titled Wilco (The Album) was a big fat UGH) but they’ve remained a constant. Schmilco seems to be just that–another Wilco record that has its fun, tells its stories, does a lot of little things that add up to a whole, and then it moves on. Onto the next one, we always hope. Wilco is a band that understand that people and things change. The world has changed tremendously since they started out 22 years ago and so have they. But they remember their roots and what makes them happy, and what makes a good record.
This Wilco fan needs a few more listens. As someone who usually only listens to live and bootleg Wilco recordings, its nice to have a new record around. Schmilco has me feeling grateful that artists and writers I admire are still making music and releasing it to the world. Try the Wilco Way today! As tomorrow it’s WILCO DAY. Schmilco is out tomorrow, September 9th, on dBpm.