The Minus 5 – Down With Wilco

Yet another of my old album reviews, this time for a Minus 5 record. Man, I need to go listen to this one again.

I bought this CD expecting it to be, essentially, a Wilco album with a couple of extra guys involved. In that respect, I was sorely disappointed–this is not a Wilco album, it’s a Minus 5 album on which Wilco play most of the instruments. But that’s not a bad thing, I discovered, because the Minus 5’s Down With Wilco is an album of many pleasures in its own right.

Sonically, the best way to describe Minus 5 is that they’re a hybrid of the Beach Boys, Village Green Preservation Society-era Kinks, the Byrds, and Neil Young. The melodies are lilting and infectious, the guitars range from gently-strummed acoustics to chimming twelve strings and Neil Young-esque electrics, and the harmonies sound very much as though the head of this project (a man named Scott McCaughey) has a huge Beach Boy fetish.

And he does–several of the songs display a Pet Sounds-era Brian Wilson type of arrangement, utilizing Wilson’s modular techniques and a wide range of instrumentation. Wilco provides most of the musicians for the set, but they tend to accommodate rather than forcing him and Peter Buck (of REM, who is also a key figure in this project. A few words about the “group”–it’s the side project of Scott McCaughey and Peter Buck, and they just have a rotating cast of supporting musicians. This time around, they hooked up with Wilco) to bend to their sound.

The most entertaining aspect of this record is the loose, free feeling of the music. Everything is tongue-in-cheek, everyone is wearing a smile while they play. You can hear it. There’s a feeling of whimsy and playfulness in this record that’s usually missing from Wilco’s very serious albums. While Wilco is still a great band (and one of my current favorites, as I might’ve mentioned), they don’t often crack smiles.

All of the tracks on this collection are winners. The opener, “The Days of Wine and Booze,” is an ode to loss and regret, a commitment to remember the old times, whether they were good or bad. “Retrieval of You” is a fairly straightforward song on paper–a man who lost the woman he loves because she became a pop star. But with its jaunty tune and laugh-out-loud funny lyrics (“They call me DJ Minimart, ’cause that’s where I work”), it rises above its basic premise. “The Town that Lost its Groove Supply” tells you everything you need to know in the title–witty, humorous, bouncy, and just plain fun. “I’m Not Bitter,” the most Wilco-sounding track on the collection, has a chanted call-and-response chorus of the phrase “I’m not bitter” over and over again, as though the narrator were trying to convince himself or his audience (you’re never sure which). The album closes with “Dear Employer (The Reason I Quit),” a Dear John letter to one’s place of employment that is both humorous and bittersweet.

But really, there’s not a bad song on the album. McCaughey is an excellent lyricist, and Wilco rises to the occasion musically and vocally. Jeff Tweedy, Wilco’s frontman, doesn’t take lead vocal duties often (only once exclusively, on “Family Gardener”), but provides excellent backing and harmony vocals throughout to McCaughey’s lead vocals.

Overall, the Minus 5’s Down With Wilco is an excellent, well-crafted album that takes a familiar band and casts them in a slightly different light. The result is one of the more enjoyable and cohesive albums I’ve listened to in a long time, and that’s saying something for a side project.