I had a wee hissy-fit the first couple of times I listened to this – Tweedy is out front and centre and almost all of the songs are acoustic-driven, so where’s the really great guitar of Nels Cline (I mean it is there but just not doing what I want it to do) and where are Glenn Kotche’s most inventive drum patterns (they are most certainly not here, but he of course plays for the song always and does right by these – it’s just not exciting) – to my mind Cline and Kotche and what they can give to a song is what’s key about Wilco; others will tell you it’s all about Tweedy and his songs. I don’t agree. Anyway, I’m over that now – I’ve listened to this a lot and I’m warming…
I was on board with this band before A New Wilco Album was an event. And I guess I’m struggling a bit with their post-hip contentment. They’re not – clearly.
Last year they released a new album called Star Wars – it was okay, I couldn’t be bothered writing anything about it but I didn’t hate it, just couldn’t really feel anything from it. It seemed slight and the title a silly dad-joke, but Wilco is comprised now of Dad-jokers. Anyway, just as tossed-off-seeming is Schmilco (the title I mean) a set of songs recorded around the same time as Star Wars, the decision clearly to not mix and match to make one “Loud” album and one “Quiet”, one electric, one acoustic…
Wilco of course doesn’t owe the world anything, they’ve done enough. Made enough really great – and interesting – songs and albums. But I guess my concern, on hearing the first couple of songs here particularly (the first couple of times) is that Wilco now sounds less like Wilco and more like A Band Influenced By Wilco.
That seemed very crushing at first. Now it makes sense, the band drifting on, floating on into a more sustainable lifestyle-block version of itself. They might even be trying a Reverse Neil Young, aiming directly for the middle of the road in the hope of a more interesting ride?
And so anyway, these short, (sometimes) clever, (often) lovely songs take a few spins to really impress their charms upon the listener – and then at least half of them hit the mark. Quarters, with its early Dylan finger-style playing and economy of language, the 2-minute quiet-chug of Locator which sounds a bit like something off one of the Velvet Underground outtakes compilations, Nope – which is most of the things Jack White thought he was doing with an acoustic guitar but never was; Someone To Lose which genuinely – authentically, lovingly – reminds of the Wilco of old as well as this new, updated version. It’s the one song here I think that could exist on any (all?) of the Wilco albums and it wouldn’t sound out of place, from the rattling early records through the experimentation and now to this acoustic-bliss phase. Replete with Beatles-esque hue, as (almost) always.
Schmilco gets more interesting the further you go down the line, it’s only 36 minutes long (perfect!) so it’s not a tough ride by any stretch, but the songs on the back-half are the most interesting. Shrug and Destroy almost gets to Smog/Callahan territory, and the closer, Just Say Goodbye, is another VU-channelling chug-of-a-song that harks back to some of Luna’s softly-softly trepidation, but has the majestic twinkle in its eye of Tweedy’s best compositions.
I don’t know how to feel about Wilco these days. I almost never feel like listening to them, but can’t fault the band for that. That’s been the realisation that Schmilco has offered – it’s not them: it’s me. And here at least they do sound like they’re trying again, it was just buried under a deceptively simple set of songs that hints at first at a nonchalance. Actually, these are exquisitely crafted wee gems, just not the Wilco songs I’m looking for. I managed, at least, to bump into a few I recognised and enjoyed getting to know a bit better. And with time I think this will mean more – in its subtle way – than most of the post-Yankee/experimental albums by the band. Their best since Sky Blue Sky anyway.