Classic Wilco for the diehards
With a solid brand as one of the leading bands in alt-country, Wilco’s name and reputation precede any of their upcoming work. It’s not entirely surprising that the release of Wilco’s tenth album Schmilco slipped into mainstream music consciousness, rather than landing with a big splash. It’s a softer follow-up to last year’s rather successful Star Wars, though it doesn’t pack any less of a punch if you’re looking for the tried and true, guitar-driven and slightly manic sound Wilco is known for.
The album, whose title is a nod to Harry Nilsson’s 1971 LP Nilsson Schmilsson begins with a quiet, controlled opening – “Normal American Kids” is the melodic lamenting we’ve come to know and love from Jeff Tweedy and company. It’s the kind of song that has an irreverence to it, borne of introspection and careful plucking.
“If Ever I Was A Child” continues in a dad-rock vein with a hint of steely twang, while “Cry All Day” has motion and begins to play into Wilco’s rocker edge. Within the first three tracks, a listener realizes that the best thing about Schmilco is that it’s a new Wilco album — as such, it doesn’t have to push boundaries. It doesn’t set out to cast the band in a new light, but it does present a collection of songs from a beloved band that together highlight they’re strengths – pure playing, no gimmicks.
At this point in their career, Wilco does not have to prove their worth to modern audiences. People will pay to go see Wilco if only to hear the old hits. What fun is that for a group of songwriters and musicians who want to create? You can tell they’re still having fun, especially on tracks like “Common Sense.” It brings in some of that off-kilter, experimental style that’s always given Wilco’s sound an edge, but a muted bass keeps the song flowing as tuneless plucking takes over.
Schmilco as several news reports and interviews have suggested, is a collection of songs coming from the same sessions as 2015’s Star Wars, an album with a more rocking edge. The band saved the songs with the most patience and the most heart for this effort, as it has a softer sound that harkens back to the earlier work on Sky Blue Sky or 2009’s self-titled released.
Newer Wilco releases have gotten away from sprawling songs in favor of tighter tracks, and Schmilco continues this trend. Overall, it’s a concise burst of Wilco-ness — only “Cry All Day” passes the four-minute mark, and the rest are all under 3:30. The whole thing clocks in at 36 minutes, putting it in the same neighborhood as Star Wars.
“Nope” gets rootsy and dirty, and segues nearly seamlessly into “Someone to Lose” that continues with more rollicking, understated classic Wilco sound. The track has almost a retro surfrock vibe with whining guitars and a little bit of Tweedy falsetto, making it one of the more memorable tracks. It also delivers that quintessential dryness when Tweedy sings “I hope you find someone to lose someday.”
“Happiness” is a standout track, both for its insightful, overarching message and the brooding, plodding guitar parts accented by a melodic chorus. Despite the title, it’s a moody and depressed track. Tweedy sings “Happiness depends on who you blame,” with a downcast vibe, and the same introspection that helped build their fan-base and reputation is as prominent as ever.
There are more traces of borderline stoner-rock intensity, on “Locator,” another one of the album’s most memorable tracks especially for the way it dissolves into a just-chaotic-enough outro of shouted vocals and wailing guitars, the kind of segment that begs for a live performance jam.
If Schmilco has any tricks up its sleeve, it’s in moments like that — where the listener is reminded how quickly this band could take these songs in an off-road direction, akin to their best moments of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Yet older and wider and mellowed out, instead they jump back on the track to resolve. Their tenth record may not bring in many new fans or open up Wilco to new listeners — but for a group this established, that’s hardly going to cause them to lose to their stride.