Looks to be a pretty big year for Wilco - the fathers of “dad rock” are slated to release the DVD documentary Ashes of American Flags on April 18, to be followed in June by a brand new studio album.
First of all, the DVD was filmed during their 2008 tour in support of Sky Blue Sky, and has just won “Best Cinematography” at the Big Sky Film Festival. It makes its Chicago premier on March 9. Though it can’t possibly match the dramatic story arcs of the band’s last documentary (I Am Trying To Break Your Heart), it is sure to be filled with great visuals, impassioned live performances, and revealing interviews with all band members, as evidenced by the trailer.
As far as the next album goes, Rolling Stone (the cutting edge magazine that just gave No Line On The Horizon 5 stars!) reported yesterday on the June release of an as-of-today untitled Wilco album. Basic tracks were recorded in January at the studio of Neil Finn during a trip to New Zealand (which also produced this video), and was overdubbed back at Wilco’s Chicago Loft studio. Word has it that the band is embracing the studio once again as a creative tool - meaning the album may be more Yankee Hotel Foxtrot than Sky Blue Sky. Though knowing Wilco, the new record will probably sound little like either of them. Songs confirmed for inclusion are "Wilco, The Song," "Deeper Down," "My Country Has Disappeared" and "Sunny Feeling."
I’ve been a fan of Wilco since the beginning, and they are without question among my favorite “all time” bands. That being said, I feel this new album has to jumpstart a new phase of artistic growth and adventurous music making to really solidify their place among this generation’s very best bands. By my count, they’ve made 3 classic records - Being There, Summerteeth, and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot - each of which followed a clear trajectory of improvement from the one before it. But with A Ghost Is Born and Sky Blue Sky there has been, IMHO, an evident decline over the past 6 or 7 years in studio quality - (read this post for my exact issues with AGIB). Wilco has been around for a long time now, since 1995, and don’t appear to be going anywhere soon - their current lineup has proven to be the most stable in their, er, troubled history. It would be a shame for Wilco, and more specifically Jeff Tweedy, to allow the band to drift into mediocrity after such a tremendous creative period (‘97-’02). I think a good comparison would be to R.E.M. - a band whose greatness is not in question due to their extended run of excellent-to-classic albums (Murmer through Automatic For The People, arguably even New Adventures In Hi-Fi), but who, since then, have released a string of lazy albums that just sound like a much lesser version of the old stuff.
Wilco are still a fantastic live act, no doubt, but the past 2 studio albums just haven’t lived up to what I've come to expect from this band. Sky Blue Sky, to me, sounds like an album made specifically for aging public radio listeners who wished those youngsters in Wilco weren’t so damn noisy. I used to think the “dad rock” moniker that I teased about to begin this post was unfair. Wilco has put out some pretty challenging and adventurous music well into their upper 30’s, but Sky Blue Sky was just too domesticated to distance the band from the tag. At this point as elder statesmen of indie-rock, do they still have it in them to really dare their audience to follow them along for the ride - as they have so successfully in the past? Remember what the alt-country purists thought about Summerteeth, or what Reprise thought of YHF? Can this new album do for them what In Rainbows did for Radiohead - make it clear that there's still music in them that is nearly as vital and engaging as their best work. I really hope they can.
If you made it this far, thanks for reading my ramblings. Here's a promising new song Wilco has been playing live for 6 or 8 months now.
MP3 :: One Wing (live from Lollapalooza, 2008)