Wilco to Try That Whole "Band" Thing on for Size

By Tankboy in Arts & Entertainment on May 18, 2007 5:25PM

2007_05_wilco_saah01.gifOne of the most revealing things Wilco's leader Jeff Tweedy says on this week's Sound Opinions (airing on WBEZ 8 p.m. tonight, 11 a.m. tomorrow, and available as a podcast after that) is his answer to Greg Kot's question of what stood in the way of Wilco being truly collaborative in the past. Tweedy answers, "Well, I probably stood in the way of that a lot of times, to be completely honest."

We've been following Tweedy's career ever since our neighbor used to drag us to see this little band her brother played drums for named Uncle Tupelo. At that time we thought Tweedy was the less talented of the two primary songwriters in that band, since Jay Farrar's songs just seemed so much, well, deeper. Wilco's A.M. did nothing to dissuade that notion, but then, out of left field, came the stunning Being There, the first in the line of a number of Wilco albums that were just absolutely terrific. In our minds Tweedy had found his counterbalance in wild man Jay Bennett, and that yang to his yin allowed Tweedy to produce some of the best music of his generation.

Until A Ghost Is Born (AGIB).

On AGIB, Bennett was long gone, Jim O'Rourke was behind the boards, and there was no one to rein Tweedy in. The end result was a self-indulgent and largely disappointing album. More members left or were fired, and we feared our love for Wilco had finally run its course, as the band seemed to be turning into a Tweedy solo project.

However, if there's one thing Tweedy is an expert at, it's confounding expectations, and that's just what he did post-AGIB when he assembled Wilco's strongest line-up to date, anchored by guitar master Nels Cline. A live album followed, and we began to hope again that Tweedy was finally ready to let Wilco function as a collaborative effort.

And that's just what he did.

2007_05_wilco_skybluesky.gifSky Blue Sky, Wilco's newest album that was released earlier this week, displays a band fully functioning as a single unit. On Sound Opinions the band explains the disc was recorded in a very short period of time and was tracked in a live setting with the group playing in a circle facing each other. The result is a softer-sounding album than one might expect from a group that has grown to Wilco's size, and to be honest it was a little too "Adult Contemporary" for us at first.

Repeated listens, though, reveal a tender song cycle with lyrics reflecting Tweedy's recent internal healing (after years of debilitating migraines and a bout with an addiction to painkillers), while at the same time offering ample display of the interplay between members of the group. The guitars are mostly muted, but when they pop out and above the mix, lines twirling about each other, the result is entrancing.

Our primary gripe about the disc was actually best coined by Time Out Chicago last week when they said, "Given the stellar band Tweedy has assembled, it occasionally feels like he's behind the wheel of a brand new Porsche but won't take it above 25 miles per hour." And that's a fair enough observation. But we think it's also fair to note that while this is the longest time a stable line-up has held fast in the history of Wilco, the members are probably still finding their way when it comes to writing together as a group. And if Sky Blue Sky is merely the band's tender first steps as a resurrected ensemble, we can't wait to hear what they sound like when they're primed and running at full speed.

Band photo from Wilco's website by Jim Saah.