- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Wilco (the Album)

This is not news to anyone who follows such matters, but jazz guitarist Nels Cline saved Wilco. At the time Mr. Cline joined the band, as a touring member a few years before recording the 2007 album “Sky Blue Sky,” Jeff Tweedy’s durable alternative- country outfit did not particularly seem in need of saving.

Indeed, the first evidence of their collaboration was not particularly promising. The studio album was marred by an impulse toward schmaltz and a weirdly mature, almost superannuated vibe. Upon hearing the title track while shopping at Bed, Bath & Beyond, I realized that it made for a very soothing bit of retail background music.

However, my impression of the album changed when I saw Wilco tour the record with Mr. Cline in tow. It was almost as if the album was a confusing architectural scheme and the live show was the finished edifice. Mr. Cline’s guitar raged, bullied and screamed its way through the mellow facades of the tracks and gave an incredible shot of confidence to Mr. Tweedy and the rest of the band.

“Wilco (the Album)” is suffused with this newfound swagger. In Mr. Tweedy’s past life as half of the alternative country band Uncle Tupelo and as Wilco’s frontman, his singing has been serviceable but, perhaps, a bit of an afterthought to his lyricism and songwriting. Here, he reaches confidently for power, lilt and timbre that previously went untapped. His songwriting confidently pillages rock archives for rhythms, riffs and progressions that are gracefully stitched together into sound that harks back to the Velvet Underground and Television but also recombines Wilco’s own history.

On the opening track, modestly titled “Wilco (the Song),” Mr. Tweedy borrows what sounds like the rhythm-guitar part of Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” and matches it with a jangled vocal line that sounds half-whispered and half-shouted. The insistent fury of the guitar is met with an occasional twangy, high-pitched trill building into a chorus that resolves with Mr. Tweedy singing, repeatedly, “Wilco, Wilco.”

The East Asian trills of the 2007 song “Impossible Germany” are recalled in the off-kilter intervals of “Black Bull Nova.” The bluesy guitar line clashes with the keyboard before taking over the song in a digressive solo that showcases Mr. Cline’s avant-garde jazz roots. The multiple intersecting guitar parts create an intensity that electrifies. The track “Sonny Feeling” glories in its shameless Beatles riffing, but the band carries it off with pulsating intensity.

Mr. Tweedy duets with Canadian chanteuse Feist on “You And I.” The acoustic track leaves room for Mr. Tweedy and Miss Feist to blend their breathy, easygoing voices. This track and “Solitaire” and “Everlasting Everything” manage some gentleness without descending into the maudlin goo of “Sky Blue Sky.”

“Wilco (the Album)” solidifies the second era of Wilco. “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” represented the band’s peak before Mr. Cline joined the band, and while that album has a certain quirky intensity that the current album lacks, there’s really no point in denying that Mr. Tweedy is laying down the best pure rock ‘n’ roll of his career right now.

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