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Album Review-Wilco Makes Things A Little Better

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If you knew nothing about Wilco (the band), Wilco (the album) would be the place to start.   Wilco Returns

Appropriately, the seventh proper LP by this decade’s quintessential American alternative-rock band, is the definitive Wilco disk, with all the ingredients of their 15-year history boiled down into a very tight, very likeable, very compelling batch of songs.

Any record bearing an eponymous name is bound to be seen as a reintroduction or a return to a band’s roots (think 1983’s Genesis, or 2006’s Pearl Jam). Wilco (the album) does just what the name implies, and it consolidates the band’s eclectic styles into a coherent statement of identity.

But Wilco also punctures that balloon of pretentiousness with a sly, parenthetical aside. From the opening lines of the album’s first song, a cool shuffle called (what else?) "Wilco (The Song)," bandleader Jeff Tweedy seems intent on saying, “Yeah, we know, this comes off as egotistical, maybe a little arrogant, but it’s just Us, after all. Lighten up”:

"Are you under the impression this isn't your life/ Do you dabble in depression?/ Is someone twisting a knife in your back/ Are you being attacked?/ Oh this is a fact that you need to know/ Wilco will love you."

This is Wilco reaching out to their longtime fans, reminding them that music can make things a little better in the worst of times. They’re being serious – they really do love you – but they’re not taking themselves too seriously. And they want you to laugh along with them.

While their previous releases, particularly the schizophrenic A Ghost Is Born, have embraced their eclecticism, this effort is more focused. They’re moving forward again but also looking back, blending studio wizardry and biting social commentary with the country grit of their past.

Wilco (the album) may be less ambitious than its predecessors, but it compensates with its breezy confidence and craftsmanship. This is a band that is comfortable in its own skin - it knows its strengths, and is settling into an agreeable and satisfying groove.

(The album) never veers too far into the experimental, but the varied Wilco textures are all evident on this disk: swirling guitars, delicate acoustics, layers of electronics, and heady percussion all built upon a foundation of air-tight song structures and lyrics.

The paranoid murder fantasy "Bull Black Nova" builds to a shuddering, noise-filled coda, with lyrical blood splattered everywhere, reflecting the band’s mastery of varying degrees of light and shade, good and evil. The delicately arranged instrumental passages that characterized the band’s last release, Sky Blue Sky, are evident again with the songs "One Wing" and "Country Disappeared."

Those extremes are bridged with jangly, straight-forward rock and pop songs, such as the spiky "I'll Fight," the infectious “Sonny Feeling,” the '70s-ish George Harrison tribute "You Never Know," and the exquisite "Deeper Down," which recalls the Baroque delicacy of The Left Bank.

Somewhere in the middle lies the soft-rock confection “You and I,” a heartfelt duet by Tweedy and Canadian songstress Feist that recently earned Wilco its first No. 1 spot on the Triple-A radio chart. Here, guitarist extraordinaire Nels Cline really shows his chops - and nearly steals the show. Over a closing tag, he hangs a tapestry behind the two singers with a retro-trippy back-masking effect.

Cline’s value to this group probably can’t be overstated, but the fact is that he doesn’t really need Wilco. As a recent cover article in Jazz Player stated, Cline “has carved his path through the modern-jazz labyrinth with an open mind and a personal style.”

You have to see Wilco with Cline in concert to appreciate how their greatness extends beyond their studio production.

During a recent concert at Wilmington’s Frawley Stadium, the band delivered the kind of expansive, experimental takes on tunes that drew so many fans to their groundbreaking album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot nearly a decade ago. Even some of the back-to-basics songs from the latest two records benefited from the added live muscle. And Cline proved his versatility, creating chaotic, rapturous noise with pedals on some songs, or finding myriad ways to complement the melody lines during others.

This is a band that has clearly hits its stride, and “Wilco (the album)” is their most definitive statement yet.