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The Major Lift

By Erik Hage

I was going to resist writing about the new, self-titled Wilco album, but Seth Rogen referencing the band in Funny People cemented it for me: Something has to be said. Wilco, a band I have ardently followed since their inception in 1995—and a band who were one of my favorites until early in the millennium—have come to represent something that makes me uncomfortable. A Wilco reference itself—as Funny People attests—has become a point of light in the hip constellation for 30- to 40-somethings. (Right jeans? Check. Right shoes? Check. 401k? Check. Wilco and Death Cab for Cutie in the disc changer? Check!)

I’m not trying to be flippant or join a backlash, and I think that the Wilco album is an OK-to-good album, but Jeff Tweedy and company have ascended to their current “important band of the decade” status via some disingenuous discursive practices in our culture—beginning with 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and the documentary heralding its creation (and attendant record- company drama), I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. The story of Wilco’s success existed long before Wilco. It is the classic band-pushing-artistic-boundaries-up-against-Goliath-record-company tale. Wilco were mashed into the narrative and came out of the experience as “It Band” of the new millennium.

Therefore, it remains a messy notion that 1999’s Summerteeth was a better album, and every bit as “experimental” in its own way. The critical hoopla around YHF reminded me of the reaction to Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road—another good, not great album that was treated like the second coming because a cadre of music critics and buyers missed the boat when she released her real masterpiece, Sweet Old World, years earlier. The fact is that every album since the magnificent Summerteeth has represented diminishing returns while Wilco’s mystique and commercial power grows larger and larger.

Look: I’m not a hater; I’ve loved this band. I’ve seen Wilco and Jeff Tweedy solo in concert several times over the years. I wrote Jeff Tweedy’s All Music Guide bio (which the Egg was kind enough to plagiarize during his show there). Long before moving back upstate, I figuratively banged on the door of No Depression magazine until they took me on as a writer, simply because I was inspired by the music that was coming from that genre—in particular Wilco’s Being There album.

The music on Wilco does not stand up, however. “You Never Know” is infectious enough, tapping into early 1970s George Harrison. The song “Wilco” is a very cheeky, very smart joke but not much as a song— and would have remained in the vaults in previous years. The twee and obvious “You and I”—sung with Feist —is sure to become the make-out song for indie-rockers everywhere, but I could go a lifetime without hearing it again. “Bull Black Nova” reminds us that Jeff Tweedy is a proggy innovator (and currently has on his payroll some of the finest musicians to see that vision out), while the powerful, burning build of “One Wing” seems to be the one track I can genuinely get behind. I can appreciate the ethos behind Wilco—that is, a band known for statements saying, here’s no statement at all; here is our record. But where are the great songs to justify the adjectives, aphorisms, and four stars that Rolling Stone and others throw at it?

Turning away from Wilco, a new compilation, Factory Records: Communications 1978-1992, culls songs from one of the most compelling independent record labels in history. The Manchester, England, imprint gave us Joy Division/New Order and the Happy Mondays, and a bunch of lesser-known, engaging and strange bands such as the Durutti Column, Cabaret Voltaire, and A Certain Ratio. This was where techno, club vibes ran straight up against experimental, postpunk rock (a fusion that a lot of bands are sawing away at these days). Hearing all of these songs on one collection really paints a stirring portrait of the Factory history, though one of the essential components of buying the vinyl Factory Re cords in the day was experiencing the sleek, minimalist graphic design, which is very much a part of the experience.

I suppose this is an unfair qualm in the era of digital downloads, but my complaint about the price is not: Thirty dollars is hefty, especially because the track listing is heavy on Joy Division and New Order—and presumably anyone drawn to this collection would already have most of that. The obscurities are really what this is about, though: Check out the icy reggae of X-O-Dus’ “English Black Boys,” the murderous, skewed buzz of Section 25’s “Girls Don’t Count,” the Durutti Column’s remastered and gorgeously chiming “Sketches for Summer,” and the John Robie remix of Cabaret Voltaire’s club gem “Yashar.” Using iTunes, one can piece together their own (cheaper) collection of Factory Records obscurities—a much better way to go.

Moving from the historically resonant to an artist sure to be tossed on the trash heap of history, Daughtry continue to bring the world the most vile, base form of radio-ready rock out there. Leave This Town lacks even a single hook and is composed of some of the most dopey, glaring-at-you-while-I-make-sweet-love-to-you songs you’re bound to hear this year. Here, the brooding bald one vacillates between skanky, hyperprocessed power ballads and amorphous Today’s Rock-format drek. I know it’s like shooting apples in a barrel to critique this, but acts like this risk throwing commercial rock radio even deeper into the shitter than it already is.

Daughtry is/are so loathsome that he/they make potty-mouth, club-kid chanteuse Amanda Blank sound downright dignified. And on I Love You, she fronts a heady set of Jell-O-shot-and-body-spray electronica. There’s much to dismiss here, but “Shame on Me” is a dead-great and downright infectious club hit whose DNA can be traced right back to Factory Records and New Order.

 


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