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Wilco Dials Down The Volume But Maintain Intensity On 'Schmilco'

By Tankboy in Arts & Entertainment on Sep 8, 2016 6:34PM

Wilco, photo by Zoran Orlic

It makes sense that the title of Wilco's new album, Schmilco, triggers thoughts of Nilsson Schmilsson, Harry Nilsson's 1971 masterpiece. Both albums see intensely prolific songwriters feeling perfectly comfortable in their own talents; and both showcase artists bucking expectations. In this case it's Jeff Tweedy and his band of merry musicians settling in and crafting songs that creep quietly but carry substantive emotional heft, despite the volume knobs being dialed back.

Much of Schmilco was tracked at the same time as the band's 2015 surprise release, Star Wars, so it's fair to view the albums as two sides of the same coin. Where Star Wars was loose and shaggy, displaying the band jumping back into "rock mode" after a couple years of more experimental wanderings, Schmilco is a more buttoned up and mellow affair. Of course with Wilco, "mellow" is a relative term, since any band that has a guitar noise-maker like Nels Cline in its ranks is never likely to smooth every edge. And despite the quieter arrangements, Cline's electric guitar still manages to wend and squall through the mostly acoustic arrangements, creating a tension and unease in even the prettiest of songs.

2016_09_wilco_schmilco.jpg Take "Nope" for instance; it's a loping, genteel song that wouldn't sound out of place as a campfire singalong ... until Cline's atonal plucking runs threaten to upend the quiet vibe. But his playing is masterfully precise, and every time it seems like his guitar will throw the song into the avant-garde, he pulls back and Glenn Kotche's authoritative drumming pulls everything back together. Much of the album continues in this vein. Quiet strumming and sweetly delivered vocals are tempered by odd skronks and off-time stabs of electric punctuation.

Still, there are a few more conventional tracks, and we predict the compact pop of "Someone to Lose" will become a fan favorite amidst the quieter, more inward-looking material.

Lyrically, Tweedy is in a self-reflective mode here—almost borderline transparent at times—and it appears he's often looking into the past as he slips into more of an emotional storyteller mode. Opening with "Normal American Kids," Tweedy examines his angry '80s teenage self, with a bit of pity and a bit of wistfulness. With a line like "Oh, bongs and jams, and carpeted vans / Hate everything I don't understand" it feels like Tweedy almost wishes he could counsel and console his younger self. And there's an intense inward critique that falls within these lines on "Happiness": "My mother says I'm great / And it always makes me sad / I don't think she's being nice / I really think she believes that." Spoken like a true Gen X-er.

This is the sound of Wilco at their most relaxed and adventurous, as much of a paradox as that might come across on paper. For a band that could be accused of gazing too deeply into its own collective navel for the last decade, the pair of Star Wars and Schmilco finally offer evidence that Tweedy and crew are experiencing a second awakening bolstered by a newfound (to these ears) artistic confidence, content to allow songs to flow instead of upending them just to prove a formal point. It's not that far away from Wilco we fell in love with during the amazing run between Being There and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

Wilco's Schmilco is available now on vinyl. It releases digitally on Friday.