Wilco’s revolving door
Changing members, evolving sound all part of band’s legacy
In the world of Wilco there is one anchoring constant: Jeff Tweedy’s songs.
The alt-country cult favorite, which comes to the INB Performing Arts Center on Thursday, seems to change lineups with each album. The sound shifts from contemplative folk, to driving indie-rock, to ambient art-noise – sometimes in the duration of one song, or from one album to the next.
Aside from Tweedy, the band’s only original member is bassist John Stirratt.
As Wilco prepares to write a new album, Stirratt said the process might change from the group building on a single riff with actual instruments to adding synthetic sounds and mega-amounts of overdubbing in post-production. The next album could be full of dance numbers, or less linear descents.
At this point, everything is hypothetical, and looking back at Wilco’s zig-zagging catalog, it’s anybody’s guess where Tweedy will steer the ship next. (For hints, read an exclusive interview with Stirratt at www.spokane7.com/blogs/soundwave.)
At the very least, the destination promises to be worth the journey.
Here’s a look at the tumultuous voyage that is Wilco’s discography:
Following the split of alt-country forefathers Uncle Tupelo, Jay Farrar went on to form Son Volt, while Tweedy led the remaining members to continue as Wilco and release the predictable-sounding “A.M,” which was considered a failure compared to the reception of Son Volt’s debut. “A.M.” contains Stirratt’s tune “It’s Just That Simple,” which was the first and last song Wilco released that was solely written by a member besides Tweedy.
“Being There” (1996)
With 19 tracks spread across two discs, Tweedy insisted on releasing the more wide-ranging “Being There” as a double album that sold for a single-album price. Warner Brothers subsidiary Reprise Records only agreed to do so if they received Wilco’s share of the royalties. Wilco lost an estimated $600,000 on the deal, but Tweedy walked away satisfied.
Inspired largely by the marital problems between Tweedy and his wife, “Summerteeth” relies greatly on the instrumentation to rescue it from the depressing lyrics. On “Via Chicago,” Tweedy sings, “I dreamed about killing you again last night/And it felt all right to me.”
Rolling Stone’s review noted: “The multilayered textures that snake around Tweedy’s troubled voice are often uplifting; Songs that begin in an air of choking claustrophobia end up on the rooftop, gazing at the stars.”
The album also marks more experimental production, for good or ill.
“The story of ‘Summerteeth’ is (ex-Wilco guitarist) Jay (Bennett) bought a Mellotron and he was going to use it, no matter what,” Stirratt told Chicago journalist Greg Kot.
“It was lovely, but it was overdone. Once they got going on the overdubs, they didn’t stop.”
Wilco halted work on “Summerteeth” to collaborate on Billy Bragg’s Grammy-nominated Woody Guthrie tribute, “Mermaid Avenue.”
“Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” (2002)
Desperate for a hitmaker after the merger of Warner Brothers’ parent, Time Warner, with American Online, Reprise rejected “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” and dropped Wilco from its roster, agreeing to send Tweedy and company packing with rights to the masters.
Wilco went on to sign with Nonesuch Records, another Warner subsidiary. The album reached No. 13 on Billboard’s Top 200 and was named one of the 500 greatest albums of all time by Rolling Stone.
“A Ghost Is Born” (2004)
After collaborating with The Minus 5, Wilco crafted “A Ghost Is Born,” with heavy use of the Pro Tools digital recording system. The album includes “Less Than You Think,” a 15-minute track of noise that even Tweedy confesses is gratuitous.
“I know 99 percent of our fans will say it’s a ridiculous indulgence. Even I don’t want to listen to it every time I play through the album,” Tweedy said in the band’s biography, “The Wilco Book.”
“A Ghost Is Born” earned Grammy Awards for Best Alternative Music Album and Best Recording Package.
The album’s release was pushed back several weeks and a European tour was canceled after Tweedy checked into rehab for addiction to painkillers.
Wilco returned as a six-piece featuring keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen and guitarist Nels Cline, who Rolling Stone named one of the “20 New Guitar Gods,” to record “Kicking Television: Live in Chicago.”
“Sky Blue Sky” (2007)
Regarded by some critics as Wilco’s “sellout album,” “Sky Blue Sky” – essentially a traditional rock and folk record – drew mixed reviews.
Rolling Stone gave the album four stars out of five, while Pitchfork gave it a 5.2 rating out of 10.
A common complaint is the album is too safe for its own good.
“Jeff Tweedy’s restlessness has always been one of his greatest strengths,” Pitchfork’s Rob Mitchum wrote. “Since Wilco’s inception more than a decade ago, his willingness to explore an ever-widening spectrum of sounds and genres, and to keep the revolving door of the band’s lineup well-oiled, has paid off in a discography that’s as diverse as it is indispensible.
“(The new lineup) seemed poised to generate the band’s finest – or at least most interesting – music yet. Instead it produced ‘Sky Blue Sky.’ ”
It was further received with skepticism due to nearly half the album being licensed for a run of commercials for Volkswagen.
Regardless of the critics’ reservations, “Sky Blue Sky” sold 87,000 copies in its first week.
Isamu Jordan can be reached at (509) 459-5299 or firstname.lastname@example.org.