Saturday, June 07, 2014

The Wilco Diaspora, Part 1

Wilco missed their drop date. Between 2007 and 2011 they reliably put out an album every other fall, but 2013 came and went with no enticing per-order info from Wilco world. Of course, dependability is not very rock & roll and, truth be told, some of those albums showed the strain of recovering from the seismic blast of A Ghost Is Born. Now, nearly halfway through the year, we know the Wilco camp has been very busy what with Jeff Tweedy announcing his solo project, Sukierae, due on September 15th, and prior releases by drummer Glenn Kotche, guitarist Nels Cline, keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen, and The Autumn Defense, which features bassist John Stirratt and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone.

All these guys are seriously talented musicians who are crucial strands in the current DNA of Wilco, with Tweedy obviously the most important as it is his voice and relatable human contradictions that drive the sound and emotional tenor of the group. The advance on his record, a collaboration with son Spencer, sounds great, so while we wait for more let's catch up with what the other members are up to.

Mikael Jorgenson (with Chris Girard and Greg O'Keeffe) - The Cheetah Jorgensen came into the fold when Wilco was touring Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and had the job of translating into a live setting some of the more outré sounds Tweedy, producer Jim O'Rourke, and ex-member Jay Bennett had come up with in the studio. His skills with both electronics and piano soon had him a full member of the group, making valuable contributions to A Ghost Is Born and subsequent releases. The Cheetah features Girard, who co-wrote the lyrics to Theologians and percussionist O'Keeffe. The album is full of tantalizing analog synth textures, playful melodies and pleasing motorik rhythms with occasional words from Girard, but it seems somewhat lacking in substance. Check out "Soybot" and decide for yourself if you want to hear more.

The Autumn Defense - Fifth Yep, it's Stirratt and Sansone's fifth album under this name and it continues their run of expert, melodic, 60's/70's AM radio-tinged songs. Very pleasant - to the point of forgettability - but if you're on a long drive and you want to listen to something you don't mind talking over, they've got your number. The collection picks up quite a bit at the end, with the addictive shuffle of Why Don't We, the hazy The Light In Your Eyes, and the psyche-era Byrds of Things On My Mind. George Harrison wouldn't have rejected What's It Take, finishing a great little run that would have made a killer EP. I view The Autumn Defense as a nice exercise that keeps Stirratt and Sansone at the top of their games in between Wilco tours and records. When you see Sansone windmilling his guitar at the next Wilco concert you'll be glad he kept in shape.

The Nels Cline Singers - Macroscope "He walks among us," Jeff Tweedy once said after yet another stunning solo from Cline during a Wilco concert. Cline has been a full-time member of Wilco since 2004 and is without a doubt the most virtuosic member of the band - indeed, he's probably one of the best living guitarists period. His recording career stretches back to 1978 and he has been involved with countless projects and bands, many in the free or avant garde jazz realm. The vocalist-free Singers is probably his most accessible group outside of Wilco and the often volcanic Macroscope may be their best yet. While there's nothing slavish here, there are welcome echoes of Santana, Miles Davis, Mahavishnu Orchestra and other masters of sprawling, dynamic music featuring devastating improvisations.

While there is often a tart humor to Cline's work, this is a serious, if quirky, contemporary jazz record without a trace of dilletantism. Cline and and percussionist Scott Amendola have been playing together for well over a decade and new bassist Trevor Dunn has toured with them in the past so they've developed the necessary telepathy to complement each other perfectly as they move through each composition. There's intensity to spare here and plenty of details to savor. Amendola's work is beyond exemplary and Dunn mostly lays back, providing a steady pulse. Check out Seven Zed Heaven, a standout track that has them moving seamlessly from knotty to ecstatic with a burning inevitability.

Glenn Kotche - Adventureland Kotche is the other virtuoso in Wilco, with whom he's played since 2000. It's hard to imagine them with anyone else, so perfectly does he manage everything from tight rock grooves to explosive freak-outs to tricky impressionist clatter. It was no surprise (to me anyway) when he put out Mobile in 2006, a simply great "new music" percussion album mostly composed by Kotche with a touch of Steve Reich. It was a real showcase for Kotche's skills and as well as his dedication in the studio. Adventureland is quite a different beast altogether. Since Mobile, Kotche has been honing his compositional talents, taking commissions and performing with Missy Mazzoli and other leading lights of the avant garde, and the new album shows his writing - and imagination - at full flower.

This is especially true of Anomaly, a seven-movement work for strings, percussion and electronics, performed here with The Kronos Quartet. There is much joy, delight, contemplation and mystery in the piece and all those moods are infectious. The execution is flawless and, listened to as a whole, Anomaly is a very satisfying piece indeed and one I can imagine having legs in the concert hall - if Kotche has made it possible for others to do what he's doing, of course. I say "as a whole" because he has chosen to interleaved the sections of Anomaly with a series of clever constructions, several with the word "haunted" in the title, that are often funny and beautiful - and sometimes downright weird.

I don't use the word "weird" often - after all, what does it really mean? I have a friend who thinks Grace Jones is weird, for goodness sake. But the Haunted Hive, for example, includes what sounds like the processed barks of a dog with its head caught in a fence, random drumming, clattering and bells - and a siren. It's somewhat reminiscent of the more abstract cuts on Pere Ubu's The Art of Walking and makes one wonder if there is a short film we're missing while it plays. Kotche's sense of play, along with his fealty to pop-song concision carries the day, however.

The Haunted Furnace, The Haunted Viaduct, The Haunted Tree House all prominently feature the piano essentially as another percussion instrument and are propulsive little engines in sound. The Traveling Turtle is sheer delight, with gamelan bells and a charming melody - a genuine portrait in sound. Triple Fantasy begins with a burst of distortion and ambitiously includes both Kronos and the chamber ensemble, Eighth Blackbird. It's length of under six minutes is deceptive - Kotche manages to pack a lot of incident into its brief run, once again showing his growing mastery of writing. 

There is a willfully schizoid quality to the way Kotche put together Adventureland, as your mind keeps trying to knit together the split up sections of Anomaly. In that way, the whole record can be seen as another composition, over and above the pieces it contains. Anomaly deserves to be listened to on its own, however, so it's almost two records in one. Great music and a good deal - especially on Amazon, where you can grab it for $5!

The boys in the band are going to have a lot to talk about whenever Wilco reconvenes. We'll pick up the story in September.

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