Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Better Late Than Never Reviews: The Whole Love - Wilco

Let's pretend for a moment that The Whole Love, the eighth studio album by accomplished rock collective Wilco, was actually two EPs, one of which we will call The Whole Love Above and the other of which we will call The Whole Love Below. If this were the case, I would say that The Whole Love Above was an out-and-out winner, loaded with infectious bass lines, experimental instrumentation, masterful songcraft, and ferocious yet nimble guitar work. On the other hand, I would be forced to say that The Whole Love Below was...a bit of a dud. However, as it stands, the piece is one full album, an uneven one that struggles to find a cohesive sound and frustratingly chooses to keep cycling back to spare guitar balladry when everything of value is clearly in the churning musicianship of its first half.

Four of the first six songs are stellar. Album opener "Art of Almost" starts with a crunchy, Krautrocky repetitious drum beat and a boatload of noodly synth, and concludes with a spectacular surge of guitar violence by reliable ax man Nels Cline. The thrill continues with "I Might," an instantly hummable classic that thrives on 60s surf rock keys, tweaked-out fuzz guitar, and a tremendously vibrant-sounding Jeff Tweedy, who is joined by the boys toward the conclusion for a cooing vocal harmony. Also standing out are "Dawned on Me," which features more distorted guitar, a tremendous chorus, and an uproarious closing that includes thunder drums, wailing keys, and some off-kilter whistling for effect. Finally, the band wraps up the first half of the album with "Born Alone," which showcases the band's way underrated rhythm section of John Stirratt and Glenn Kotche. The two combine to create a groove that leaves the listener literally salivating to hear the song in concert.

There are highlights on the second half of the album as well, as anyone who listens to the title track or (to a lesser extent) "Standing O" would surely attest. "The Whole Love" has an almost Fleetwood Maccian vibe with Tweedy singing in a gorgeous falsetto, accompanied by playful guitar noodles, more locked-in bass, and a set of vocal harmonies toward the song's climax that can only be described as blissful. "Standing O," meanwhile is a straight-ahead, fun rock song filled with poppy synth and blared-out guitar. This being said, this segment of the album chooses quite stubbornly to focus on Tweedy's singer/songwriter side, sending the band on a cigarette break or something, while the band's leader messes about on the acoustic. When a band can create sounds like this one can, you simply can't tolerate the standard-issue strumming of "Rising Red Lung" and "Open Mind." "Capitol City" sounds like the kind of derivative, cutesy stuff that Paul McCartney used to sneak onto otherwise brilliant Beatles albums (yes, I'm looking at you "When I'm Sixty-Four"). As for "One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)," the album's 12-minute closer, I'm sure the guy they wrote it for is swell, but next time they want to send him some dap, I hope they just include an MP3 in a personal e-mail because this interminable slog has no business on a Wilco album, let alone closing the show.

I don't want to seem like some sort of troglodyte who only likes music that moves at a certain beats per minute. I can appreciate the chilled-out vibe, especially from Wilco, the band that brought us classics like "Company in My Back," "Handshake Drugs," and countless other great songs. However, the slow jams on this album almost exclusively go nowhere. You keep hoping they are leading to some sort of payoff that never seems to come, as it does in past intimate ditties like "At Least That's What You Said" or "On and On and On." When they don't, it can't help but be disappointing, especially when they are accompanied by songs that spotlight how incredible the band can be when all parts are running at full-speed.

Seeing as its incredibly lofty high points are so frequently accompanied by deathly dull lows, The Whole Love can't help but stand as a tiny bit of a letdown. And yet one that may still seem worth your entertainment dollar despite its many missed opportunities. Still, it could have been so much better!

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