Monday, September 12, 2016

Wilco - Schmilco Review

Last year, Wilco caught everyone by surprise when they released Star Wars with no warning. For a group so set on defining norms, abiding by the formula, and doing everything in their power to stay as middle of the road as possible, this move, even if it may have been prompted by a recent string of advanced PR moves from the industry, was finally something different from Jeff Tweedy and the gang. The music, while still relatively flighty and modest, had sparks that matched the risky behavior displayed in the album's rollout, or lack thereof. For a decade wallowing in the shadow of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Star Wars was an essential transgression to a more daring time when they weren't quite yet that quintessential Alt-Country band. The time between was largely spent playing it safe, the divisive nature of Star Wars, quite confusing to an outsider who would still see the album as ordinary, proves the album's unorthodox approach, at least when compared to its contemporaries. Schmilco, a quick response just over a year later, aims to return Wilco to their safe space, with an album that's about as inoffensive, bland, and dry as one can hope to get.

For longtime fans of the group, who stuck through the relative down years when nothing quite imaginative was happening, Schmilco might seem as a return to form. There's no sudden release, no structural anomalies (looking at you, 'You Satellite'), and no bouts of maximalist production. Despite featuring just as poor of a cover and title, Schmilco traced back through Wilco's lineage and drew upon the same tired precedents, entertaining the idea of a routine rollout, just as much as it did the act of creating a subdued and relaxed atmosphere. Think of it as Star Wars' less rebellious brother, which, if we're taking the entire family into account, are both inferior to the success stories found early on. Maintaining that family connection, Schmilco actually bears the closest resemblance to Tweedy's work with his son on 2014's Sukierae. Inoffensive Lo-Fi Indie Rock that primarily focuses on the singer and his acoustics. Just so happens, a lot of people enjoy this style of music. I do not. Lyrics are almost never what draws me into a work, and without elaborate production or clever melodies strung behind the singer, engaging myself with the music is tough.

Not all is lost though. At first sight, and for the first time in a while, the intro, 'Normal American Kids,' actually interests me purely based on its contents. The track sets Schmilco up as your classic pin-up Americana, with Tweedy reflecting on a time when he wasn't an ordinary individual, living a childhood unlike those around him. Follow-up 'If I Ever Was A Child' elaborates upon these ideas, providing a pleasant backdrop for the intro's quite barren atmosphere. And while that primary focus of childhood tends to lose itself as the album progresses, the thoughts and feelings of reflecting on the past are ever present. On 'We Aren't The World (Safety Girl)' it does return though, using Tweedy's inverted sense of humor to play on the 'We Are The World' anthem. The track, while still containing some level of corniness derived from what it's parodying, features Schmilco's most divine melody, as the fluttering production flows gracefully behind Tweedy, like a bubbly orchestra of sorts. As quaint as Schmilco is, the content, rather ordinary itself, is still refreshing enough to warrant repeated listens. Problem is, Star Wars had the same level of lyrical intrigue, whilst also filling the background with production that stepped out of Wilco's comfort zone.

That's where Schmilco falters the most, it just doesn't aspire to be anything more than average. There's only one song that aims to be different sonically-speaking, and that's 'Common Sense.' Not the best of the bunch, but the production feels cold, despondent, and pushes unusual sounds to the forefront instead of abolishing them entirely. Reminds me in some ways of a less grandiose deep cut from Modest Mouse. However, thanks to the fact it's the outcast, 'Common Sense' causes friction amongst its closest neighbors, and with no other ambition types dotting the album, Schmilco feels dreadfully complacent. As far as comparisons go, when 'Locator' initially dropped I felt it was quite average, but placed against the rest of the LP, the rather abrasive Garage Rock track stands as one of Schmilco's best. At that point though, after a four-track run of rather redundant and trivial substandard Wilco tracks (from 'Nope' to 'Quarters'), the quality of 'Locator' relies more on its spark than actual techniques. No song here, as opposed to a few on Star Wars and a ton from their past, dictate the greatness of Wilco's production intricacies. Everything feels quite flat.

If the title wasn't a clear cut answer, Schmilco never aspired to be much. In a way, it seems like a collection of outtakes without a place to go. Even the title jumbled up the meaning with mush. Being just a year removed from their latest LP, one that came four years after their last, Wilco caused their quality to slip, using the facade of stripped down Singer/Songwriter as a crutch. It's short, with only one song surpassing four minutes, not because of super refinement, but more so idea exhaustion. Schmilco never had much of a chance from the get-go, because Wilco failed to consecrate ideas to go along with it. In their catalog, it falls right in the middle. And for a group already known for doing such unassuming things, that's quite a statement. There's moments, spots where a good ear goes a long way or lyrical talent shines above all else, but the majority of Schmilco doesn't strive to be anything but ordinary. You don't need to reinvent the wheel, but when I've seen one a million times, yours won't be special.

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