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.

Albums of the Year

Every year, I find my favorite albums and make a list of ’em, like roughly 99.9999% of the blogosphere. I’ll forgo the whole Best of the Decade thing that so many are doing, because honestly I have a difficult time remembering everything that came out that I liked this year, let alone ten years ago (besides, I was a mere slip of a thing ten years ago; what the hell did 19-20 year old me know?). You’ll notice that I tend to favor enjoyable music to challenging music (which isn’t to say challenging music can’t be fun, but you won’t see much noise or art rock on my list, and I really can’t abide by Animal Collective). Also, The Beatles box set was not eligible on account of it being totally unfair and there only being ten spots on the list, not 14 (13 albums plus Past Masters). Anyway, in a rather particular order, here’s my top ten albums of 2009…

10. Wilco, Wilco (the album): The winking smirk of the album title and the opening track (“Wilco (the Song)”) are a great indicator that this is a band that’s having some fun. With great tunes such as “Sunny Feeling” (my favorite on the album; just listen to that slide guitar) and the lovely “You and I,” it’s clear that Wilco has found their comfort zone and could churn out warm, lovely songs for the next ten or fifteen years easily without changing a thing. And I’d buy every single album they released.

9. Works Progress Administration, Works Progress Administration: I’ve always had a soft spot for anything related to Glen Phillips (he of Toad the Wet Sprocket), and throwing a few members of the progressive bluegrass mainstays Nickel Creek into the mix always works out well. This is a mellow, folky record that’s just fun to listen to; you can tell the musicians had a blast recording these songs, and shouldn’t music be fun?

8. Monsters of Folk, Monsters of Folk: I also have a soft spot for the Supergroup (the Traveling Wilburys will always be my favorite, of course). While this folkie indie supergroup isn’t the second coming of the Wilburys or anything, it’s still a lot of fun. It may not be a challenging listen, but it’s definitely a fun one.

7. Modest Mouse, No One’s First and You’re Next: It’s only an EP, but it was a damn good one. There’s not a bad song on here, and the opener, “Satellite Skin,” is one of my favorite songs of the year. They’re not doing anything all that different than what they’ve done on their past couple of full-length albums, but they’re doing it really well, so I won’t complain.

6. Neko Case, Middle Cyclone: Case sounds like she’s finally recording the sort of songs she wants to, a nice balance of country, indie pop, and traditional roots rock that fits right alongside what’s come before but is also a step away from her earlier sound. “This Tornado Loves You” is like a theme song for my home state of Oklahoma, I swear; who else would have the chutzpah to personify a tornado?

5. Iron & Wine, Around the Well: An odds-and-sods collection shouldn’t be this good, but Around the Well is. Looking at the leftovers and castoffs usually strikes me as a good time, and this collection is pretty rewarding in that respect. Plus, really awesome covers of the Flaming Lips’ “Waitin’ for a Superman” and the Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights.” Awesome.

4. The Flaming Lips, Embryonic: Noisier and messier than anything they’ve recorded in the past fifteen or maybe even twenty years, Embryonic sounds a lot like the record the Lips have been wanting to record their whole career. Warm and cathartic and amazing when played live, the songs from this album are great, and the loose thematic organization helps them hang together really well.

3. Dirty Projectors, Bitte Orca: Remember how I said I prefer fun to challenging? I also said that you could have both at once, and this album fits that. These guys and gals are clearing having a blast on this record, and making some music that is both thought-provoking and fun to just sit back and listen to.

2. Bob Dylan, Together Through Life: Dylan continues his late-career renaissance with an album that incorporates a whole lot of accordion and a heaping helping of his rusty, 40-of-whiskey-and-two-packs-a-day voice. This is also funny Dylan, as he cracks jokes, snarks a lot, and generally sounds like he has a smirk on his face the whole time. Favorite line: “I’m listening to Billy Joe Shaver and I’m reading James Joyce/Some people tell me I’ve got the Blood of the Lamb in my voice.” Classic.

1. A.C. Newman, Get Guilty: Usually, in a year that features not one but two Dylan albums (Christmas in the Heart being the second, which almost made the list for sheer bizarro-ness), the top spot would be Dylan. But that is not the case this year, and not because Dylan wasn’t deserving (hey, #2 ain’t bad). No, the simple fact is that A.C. Newman’s Get Guilty was the best album I’ve heard all year. I came out back in the beginning of the year (January, I think), and I’ve been listening to it pretty much constantly since then. And there’s not a bad song on the record: everything from “Like a Hitman, Like a Dancer” to “Prophets” is a perfect slice of bouncy, energetic power-pop that you can’t help but shout along with. Newman has a McCartney-esque way with hooks and melodies, making them sound effortless and obvious, but he’s also got some great lyrics to go along with the tunes. Definitely my favorite album of the year, and probably one of my favorites of this decade.

Honorable Mentions: M. Ward’s Hold Time, Dark Was the Night (a great compilation featuring a who’s who of indie guitar rock), Bob Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart (bizarre and awesome), The Minus 5’s Killingsworth (getting back to the 5’s earlier, more countryish sound), The Decemberists’ The Hazards of Love, The Dead Weather’s Horehound, Elvis Costello’s Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane, and Yo La Tengo’s Popular Songs.