Thursday, October 6, 2011

Wilco's The Whole Love on LP

Listening to Wilco's new album, The Whole Love, for the first time is like listening to their 2002 masterpiece, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, for the first time. It's unexpected, considering what has come before it, and it's unbelievably great. That's not to say that the two albums are similar, because they're not. But after spending some time with The Whole Love, you probably will feel the same sense of elation (as long as you're a Wilco fan), and you'll know that this is a group that will continue to confound and surpass our expectations with each new release.

By now it's clearly evident that Wilco makes two types of albums: on one side you have the simple, back-to-their roots releases (Sky Blue Sky, Wilco (the Album)) that stress their strengths as musicians and their ability to play somewhat straight yet unique songs in the now faded "No Depression" mold, and then you have the fully experimental mode (the two albums I mentioned in the first paragraph, along with 2004's A Ghost Is Born) that bend and shuffle this band's talents into something strange and almost confrontational. From the first song, "Art of Almost," you'll wonder what happened to the old Wilco; with its distinct electronica structure and climactic wild freak-out, you'll think you're hearing the latest Radiohead album with Jeff Tweedy as lead vocalist. My first reaction was "Is this Wilco's Kid A?" It is and it isn't.

What follows, fortunately, is all Wilco, but skewed in a way that comforts you in the way their last two albums didn't, especially in the confident way it shows that Tweedy and Co. are still willing to push the envelope. In "I Might," the album's first single and the song that immediately follows "Art of Almost", you'll hear a tight beat that will remind you of songs like "Heavy Metal Drummer" and "Camera" while adding a farfisa organ that steps backward into '60s psychedelia. From there the album shifts to and fro from gentle, acoustic ballads to full-fledged rock-outs (such as the slightly abrasive yet assertive "Standing O"). "Capital City" will amuse you with its old-fashioned feel which isn't too far removed in spirit from those clever little ditties Freddie Mercury used to insert into old Queen albums, but its unique instrumentation--a Wilco trademark--takes it a step further and exhilirates more than it amuses.

The Whole Love ends as auspiciously as it begins, but in another totally susprising way. Wilco isn't afraid of including long, epic songs (as A Ghost Is Born clearly demonstrated), and here you get the 12-minute plus "One Sunday Morning." But this isn't epic in the prog-rock sense, it's a gentle, acoustic epic that floats out of a rather quiet and relaxed riff (reflecting the title) and becomes diffused and expansive between the many, many verses. It's calming in the same way as Yo La Tengo's "Night Falls on Hoboken" from And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, but instead of a long, calculated degeneration into noise it keeps snapping back into focus.

So what version of The Whole Love should you buy? I obviously opted for the LP version, which adds a pleasant cover of "Sometimes It Happens" as a coda. (The regular CD version stops at "One Sunday Morning".) A deluxe version of the CD adds a bonus disc that contains four more songs, including Nick Lowe's "I Love My Label." Then again, when you buy the LP the regular CD is included in the price, just like Wilco did with Wilco (the Album). That way you can compare the sound of the CD and the LP directly. For the record (no pun intended), I felt that the CD had better bass, but the LP had more presence. The LP pressing, unfortunately, was a bit noisy and was cursed with surface noise, which is unforgiveable considering it cost me nearly thirty bucks. So I say buy 'em all if you're completist.

This has definitely been a great year for my favorite bands--Fleet Foxes, TV on the Radio and now Wilco have made 2011 more than a bit special. If you love Wilco but were slightly put off by the rather ordinary feel of their last couple of releases, The Whole Love will take you back to the astonishment you felt with YHF. Then again, it's all preference, as I did note one music critic compare this unfavorably to their "landmark" album Wilco (the Album)--different strokes, y'all. But for me it's the album of the year, along with Fleet Foxes' Helplessness Blues, one I'll keep coming back to whenever I feel bored with the fancy, indistinct direction alternative music's taken over the last couple of years.

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