Monday, October 13, 2008

The Minus 5. Down With Wilco (Yep Roc, 2003)

"There's too much time for us to crack/ I want my money back/ One thing I guarantee/ It's so hard trying to be a little less like me."

In hindsight, the title of The Minus 5's 2003 symphonic pop opus Down With Wilco seems eerily prophetic. In 2002, Wilco released one of the finest albums of the decade in Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, completing a trifecta of genius which includes 1996's Being There (awesome) and 1999's Summerteeth (so awesome). In 2004, Wilco followed up Yankee Hotel Foxtrot with the supremely disappointing and, at times, seemingly willfully unlistenable A Ghost is Born. And last year out came Sky Blue Sky, comparatively more enjoyable than A Ghost is Born but in the final analysis a pretty boring stab at '70s AOR. Since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, I've found myself unable to get excited about Wilco -- a band I used to spend an inordinate amount of time thinking and talking about -- in any serious way. They've fallen almost completely off my radar. It's a king drag.

Which makes me wonder if Scott McCaughey -- formerly of Seattle's The Young Fresh Fellows and currently the mastermind (along with R.E.M.'s Peter Buck) behind The Minus 5 -- placed some kind of hoodoo curse on Jeff Tweedy and Co., because Down With Wilco is the last album Tweedy worked on that I have unequivocally enjoyed.
The Minus 5 is McCaughey's outfit, but Jeff Tweedy provides some songwriting support to Down With Wilco, plays guitar all over the record, and turns in a bunch of vocal performances. It's an instantly engaging, clever, and captivating album of immediate pop-rock nuggets, gilded with subtle multi-instrumental flourishes, and it's the kind of stuff that used to be Tweedy's bread and butter.

Down With Wilco is the eighth release from The Minus 5, a group conceived by McCaughey as a rotating band of like-minded musicians focused around core personnel McCaughey and Buck. Members of the Posies have frequently been involved, as have Robyn Hitchcock and American Music Club's Mark Eitzel. The guiding principle is golden-hued, highly melodic indiepop with a serrated edge. McCaughey is a first rate songwriter and composer, with a gift for taking the sonically simple and elevating it to the realm of the sublime. The tunes on Down With Wilco are easily grasped and guileless, universally pleasing like the best popular music, with bold hooks and assertive melodies that aren't easily forgotten. Add to this McCaughey's clever-but-never-precious turns of phrase, and you've got a rare listening pleasure on your ears.

"Days of Wine and Booze" introduces the LP with the sounds of a warming-up orchestra, a gentle, classical piano line, and a wistful McCaughey singing, "I know once the feeling flows, it's a long hard way/ Still I never want to lose the days of wine and booze." As the song moves forward, bass and drums are gradually added to the mix, creating a coolly captivating aural palette and a nice calling card for the rest of the record. "Retrieval of You" picks up the pace considerably, using a jaunty, alt-country-esque bit of jangle pop to tell an unnerving/ridiculous story of hard feelings and revenge. "Now you're a fabled rekkid star/ And I'm DJ Mini Mart/ 'Cause that's where I work," recounts McCaughey in the guise of a jilted sideman plotting the kidnapping and captivity of a former musical collaborator. "Everybody knows I fell afoul of fame/ And you're to blame that I'm What's-His-Name." The 3:28 mark sees Tweedy turn in some nicely thorny guitar commotion that works in the context of the pure pop of this track, but would unfortunately develop into irritating abstraction on A Ghost is Born.

"Daggers Drawn" is a sweeping, piano-driven ballad, with a stately main section and lovely descending bridge. The guitars gleam throughout, the notes dripping from the main melody like dew from a flower. "Where Will You Go" is underpinned by a skipping xylophone and a sweetly unraveling main riff. The drums go tom-heavy in the verses, giving the tune a slightly spaced-out, cavernous feel before the sharp vocal lines of the chorus bring everything back into focus. It's a compelling build-and-release dynamic.

Tweedy assumes lead vocal duties on "The Family Gardener," a glimmering acoustic pastoral that seems to expand upon his preoccupation with the Peter Sellers film "Being There," in which an innocent manchild attains political fame and power through his simple, agricultural-based aphorisms. It's a beautiful song, and wouldn't have sounded at all out of place on Wilco's Being There. "The Old Plantation" is set to a gentle martial march and reinforced by McCaughey's cheerfully melancholy singing and lyrics about inertia and inevitable decay. "The old plantation has been abandoned/ The love is gone, yeah, the love is gone/ New hieroglyphics braid the columns/ Kids on the M-Train baptize the lawns."

Perhaps the album's most honest pleasure comes at the very end with "Dear Employer (The Reason I Quit)." Over easily overlying chords and a sweetly exhausted vocal refrain, McCaughey turns in his resignation: "Dear employer, when you hear the news/ Please save the saintly words for saintly souls/ I'll be long gone, long gone and rotten/ Long gone and ulcerous, nothing untold." "That's the reason that I quit," the singer intones over and over, as the song and the album fade into a tender silence.

Wilco used to move me. Now they just bore me. And maybe it has something to do with The Minus 5. Did Down With Wilco somehow seal Tweedy's fate, dooming him to forever fail to live up to his previous glory? I don't know. But you know what? If it did, it was worth it. This album is that good.