Strange ramblings and inquisitive whimsy

Wilco – The Whole Love – Extended Album Review


Throughout a career-long tendency for lineup and label changes, Chicago-based alt rock band, Wilco have released a wide variety of albums in terms of feel, approach and execution.  And with their post-A.M catalog ranging from the highly experimental Being There to the surprisingly unthreatening Sky Blue Sky, it would be easy to expect their most recent full-length, The Whole Love to be either characteristically edgy or approachably bland.  Surprisingly, this release is somehow neither.

Out of familiarity and confidence rather than compromise Wilco have managed to release a record that is at once rife with the experimentation of earlier releases and cohesively palatable.  Featuring a track list dominated by effortless and subdued songs interrupted by the occasional attention-grabbing cathartic experiment, The Whole Love contains enough of the old Wilco’s knack for shaking things up to satisfy those bored stiff by the normalcy of the band’s mid-career releases while simultaneously standing as a more cohesive effort than even a ghost is born, successfully placing it on par with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

As silence is broken with the distorted sound of someone fumbling with a microphone on album-opener, “The Art of Almost,” the listener breathes a sigh of relief – or a groan of frustration – as it’s clear that Wilco have once again returned to the experimental leanings of their past.  But once you endure the 7-minute-long saga of instrumental and vocal indulgence it also becomes clear that there’s a depth on this album to be appreciated.

Plodding, steel guitar-laced, “Black Moon” and bouncy narrative, “Capitol City” offer two vastly different incarnations of the band, yet neither breaks the overall tone or flow of the album.  That artistic diversity devoid of unfavorable frenetic disorganization may be the greatest achievement of all.   From the modern British pop influence of “Standing O” (wherein Patrick Sansone pays tribute to Ray Manzarek with an organ riff utterly evocative of The Doors’ own, “Light My Fire”) to the surreal and ethereal “Sunloathe,” the intra-album continuity is a masterful achievement by what finally sounds like a veteran band.

Interestingly, some have pointed to lyrical composition as a weak point on this project.  However, rather than a case of shortcoming I would argue this a perfect example of listeners’ collective unjustified entitlement.  Since the relative dwindle of the psychedelic movement, a myth has developed that everyone should be personally capable of understanding a song’s meaning simply by listening to the lyrics.  Contributing writers of Wilco clearly disagree with this myth and for that I’m thankful.  For a band with a career-long association with major record labels, this group has never been one to be told what to do.  It’s cost them their contract with Warner and the occasional dollar here and there though their integrity and quest for personal, uninhibited expression has remained fully intact.

Contradiction and seemingly incoherent messages have been sighted as key culprits in this release’s lyrical malpractice, however, just because some don’t ‘get it’ doesn’t mean the lyrics don’t make sense.  Did anyone really understand the majority of CSNY’s lyrics?  And how often have analysts, linguists and potheads alike attempted to decode the more obscure of Hendrix’s catalog?  My point is not that lyrics lack importance but rather that incoherent-bordering-on-mystical lyrics are no reason to detract from an album’s worth – and especially this album’s.

A commendable effort from seasoned and accomplished group of musicians, The Whole Love is clearly an indication of a stronger, more resolute Wilco.  Secure in a tenacious lineup and finally on their own label, there’s nothing to keep this band from securing their already lofty position as one of the greatest bands of this generation.



Did you know that I’m also a regular contributor to online Rock Blog,  There you can find heaps more reviews of albums spanning all genres!  Head on over to MVRemix to check it out!


Tori Amos – Night of Hunters – Album Review

Classical composition and Baroque nuance have been present in her music since before her 1986 label debut, however until now, Tori Amos has limited the presence of that influence to the occasional appearance among a sea of more musically current themes and stylistic attempts.  Now, upon the release of her 12th full-length album, Night of Hunters, it seems as though she has finally found her natural place among its entirely classical body of songs.

Released on German label, Deutsche Grammophon, each song is composed as a variation on a different classical theme with the intention of paying homage to influential composers from the last 400 years.  Standing at 12 tracks and just over 75 minutes long (extensive for most artists though hardly out of the ordinary for Amos) the overall musical work weaves an epic tale of the duality between ‘the hunter’ and ‘the hunted’ while simultaneously exploring themes of personal growth and relational hardship; and it does so solely through the use of a symphonic octet, piano and vocals performed by Amos, daughter, Natashya Hawley and niece, Kelsey Dobyns.

The result is an utterly natural incarnation for Amos and one that effectively places her where she has always threatened to go but has never fully ventured.  Classical music has forever been tailored for showcasing natural talent – both for composer and performer – and for that reason this album provides an exquisite platform to adequately showcase Amos as both an unmatched vocalist and as a tastefully talented pianist.  The aural simplicity laced with musical intricacy is a quality rarely touched by most popular releases and it comes as a much-needed sigh of relief for our society’s ears.

Among this project’s best features are Amos’ piano composition and performance and Hawley’s vocal presence; the former which calls upon the more orchestral of Ludovico Einaudi’s work and the latter which ads a depth and variety without which the album as a whole would suffer greatly.  Of course, that’s not to suggest that the listener overlook the expressly dauntless narrative or breath-taking orchestral arrangements (the contribution of long-time collaborator, John Philip Shenale) both of which lend to the album unyielding power and movement.  Overall a stunning effort, I would encourage anyone to delve into this valiant musical saga.

The Kooks – Junk of the Heart (Happy) – Album Review

For a band that has enjoyed international success due largely to their own brand of British rock characterized by high-energy, uber-catchy melodic and lyrical hooks, their third full-length, Junk of the Heart (Happy) is surprisingly mellow.  Or maybe we’ve sold them short with this expectation.  More and more, bands tend to be pigeonholed within a specific niche while they are, in reality, quite capable of exceeding those boundaries.  And though some fans may look at this album as an indication that this once-angsty group is now settling down and, stated begrudgingly, “finding their more mature side,” I would encourage a more positive perspective.

Though this album is certainly mellower and more mature than past releases, it also serves as a more varied listening experience with more to offer.  I would also argue that energy isn’t lost on this record but rather redirected.  Both in terms of artistic restraint and lyrical precision, this is a luminary release for both this band and this genre.

Take album interlude, “Time Above the Earth” for example.  Comprised solely of an orchestral backdrop and Pritchard’s unmistakable vocal quality, this song steps outside of anything this band has done before. That musical restraint – that patience – mirrors other tracks on the record as well; throughout each of these songs lack of instrumental distraction and tasteful execution yields a uniquely intimate experience.

Further adding to the refined nature of this release are the lyrics.  Song after song on this record is – stated simply – poetic.  “Rosie,” “Killing Me” and “Eskimo Kiss” are all heartfelt love songs written with a rarely surpassed elegance while “Is It Me” and “Petulia” achieve a similarly profound effect through more poignant and gruesome devices.

I’ll agree that this isn’t the same record they released in ’06 or even ‘08, but instead of indicating decline in terms of both appeal and relevance, I think this is a step towards a more adaptable and enticing band – a band not easily dismissed after one or two weeks – that has the potential to stick around for a long, long time.

Nature Is Your Teacher If You Want It

I spent the week at 8,600 feet in Lake City, Colorado – for those unfamiliar, it’s a sleepy little mountain town nestled in the heart of the San Juan’s – and being far removed from what most would call ‘civilization’ I found it easy to get sucked into a simpler way of life dictated more by the hours of daylight and less by the hours of the bar. So in staying with the theme of getting out of my normal city routine, I decided to wake before sunrise and head out on Lake San Cristobal by kayak to watch that big rock of fire peek its head up over the mountains.

Somehow – and I’m not sure how I pulled this off – I managed to peel my brother out of bed to come along with me. We were out the door by 5:20 a.m. hoping to unload the boats and be on the water for the supposed 5:47 sunrise. Being in such a hurry, our minds admittedly clouded by the haze of waking earlier than usual, we underestimated the chill in the air and by the time we made it out on the water wearing little more than jackets, jeans and sandals we were both cursing each other for not having learned after 20 years of living in the Colorado Rockies that the weather is almost always colder than it looks.

Colorado is a land where snow can come over the hills in the middle of July on a day with a forecast of clear skies and a high of 80 degrees. Wind can creep up and drop the temperature from 75 to 32 in a matter of minutes and regardless of what the weatherman says, it can – and usually will – get cold. That’s not to say that it’s not my favorite place in the world – I love Colorado – but you’d think that after years of learning these lessons the hard way we’d at least be able to figure out that in the wee hours of the morning the air outside might be a bit chilly.

So with nearly numb digits we somehow managed to paddle out, our extremities more closely resembling sausages attached to stumps than actual hands and feet. It would be another hour or so before the sun made it up past the 11,000-foot peaks surrounding the lake, so in the interest of maintaining activity and some semblance of body heat we started paddling around. The quiet was spectacular, severe even, and despite being more than 100 feet from each other, only whispers were needed to communicate; the sounds bounced off the water, off the trees, off the mountains surrounding and eventually found their way to our ears as crystal clear as when they had left our mouths.

All around us we could see the sun caress the tips of the higher peaks in the distance and slowly meander down the groves of aspens and pines towards the lake. From the water we waited for what felt like an eternity for a taste of that warm light slowly and cautiously drawing closer, inch-by-inch. With no wind the lake was clearer than any mirror I’ve ever seen; it bent the light in a way that exaggerated the colors of the sky against the mountains and the mountains against the sky and made them seem more like a vivid dream than real life.

It had been nearly an hour since we first paddled out and realizing it would probably be another 30 minutes before the sun found us, we started searching for the point on the lake where the sun would first make contact. Heading from our end down to the other we paddled quickly enough to warm our bodies and chill our naked hands, now lifelessly gripping the paddles. After a few minutes of investigative toil we realized there was probably no better place than where we had come from, so back we went, each stroke pulling us closer towards the reflection of the mountains in the water.

I made a personal goal to paddle just long enough to reach the reflection of the mountains rather than the reflection of the sky. Of course, if you’ve ever been in a kayak you know that’s impossible; the reflection of the sky will always meet the reflection of the mountains just in front of your vessel. Realizing this shortly thereafter I settled for ‘close enough.’ Looking a few feet across the water at my brother I saw that he had found a spot into the mountains’ reflection in the water and in that moment I realized I was being taught one of Mother Nature’s precious and silent life lessons.

Life is more like that water than we think. Everyone seems to be headed towards some goal that they can see, either clearly or with mild distortions. We see others who have achieved what we hoped to accomplish and wonder how they got there; wonder what we’re doing wrong when in actuality it’s all just a reflection in the water. We’ve already come further than we realize, at least in others’ eyes, but we don’t see it because we’re not looking from the right angle.

Believing that lesson was over I took the moment to breathe in the cool summer air, feeling proud of myself for being open enough at 6:30 in the morning to listen to Her advice.

The sun had finally grown close enough to illuminate the treetops cresting the ridge of the mountains to the east. With each passing second it grew brighter and brighter, evolving towards inexplicable splendor and within a matter of minutes it was hitting us with directly in the face, bringing with it some much-needed warmth to our fingers and toes. Both blinded by the reflection of the giant star in the water my brother and I took a few minutes to soak in the glory before heading back to shore. My brother looked across the water and laughingly told me I had it easy. When a puzzled expression provided my reply, he elaborated, saying the reflection of the sun was hitting him square in the face; I guess he didn’t realize it was hitting me the same way. I realized Nature wasn’t finished speaking.

Everyone in the world has pretty much the same problems manifested in slightly different forms. Some worry about money, some about health, some about life and some about death. Whatever our individual obstacles, they can seem to blind us from time to time; it’s certainly no secret that worries can make it difficult to see where we’re going. And though everyone has things they’re trying to overcome, we all seem to think that our situation is unique to us alone – that no one else will understand. In reality, those problems are hitting everyone else just as hard and in exactly the same way they’re hitting us; and in exactly the same way that sun was hitting my brother and I. And just like that star in the water, each obstacle has its share of benefits; we couldn’t see a darned thing but we were quite a bit warmer.

I guess it just depends how you chose to view things; sometimes the world looks starkly different depending on which perspective you adopt and other times it looks exactly the same. We shouldn’t be afraid to let a few ripples distort our image of success because those ripples indicate life; they illuminate the ever-changing dance of existence. I don’t believe we should ever believe another is better off nor should we believe ourselves more fortunate than they, whether it appears that way or not. Water may be deceptive in many ways, but then again, it never claimed to be truth. It’s our human consciousness – our human reasoning – that interprets those reflections as truth when really, the only place we can reasonably expect to find honesty is in the mountains, the sky and the trees that make those reflections on the water. Just because a person has an ugly reflection doesn’t mean they’re ugly and just because a person’s image is beautiful doesn’t mean their soul reciprocates. What we see on the surface is most likely a distortion of the truth, whether that distortion is born out of omission, manipulation or a simple case of perceptive inaccuracy. Next time you’re about judge someone, look up from the reflection in the water and try to see what he or she actually is – see who he or she actually is. I think you’ll be surprised what you find.