Wilco – Schmilco

Schmilco (2016)


1. Normal American Kids 2. If I Ever Was a Child 3. Cry All Day 4. Common Sense 5. Nope 6. Someone to Lose 7. Happiness 8. Quarters 9. Locator 10. Shrug and Destroy 11. We Aren’t the World (Safety Girl) 12. Just Say Goodbye


The internet is currently bursting with hot takes about Star Wars, so without further ado, let me add mine, which you have surely all been waiting for:

It was clearly the best Wilco album since the glory days! Total return to form! Boo yah!

Oh, sorry, wrong Star Wars. I guess I can put my thoughts on The Last Jedi out there too: there were things about it I liked, others I didn’t, and overall it was kind of a mess (although I haven’t rewatched it – when it comes out on blu-ray maybe my opinion will improve. Or not). But anyone engaging in teeth-gnashing fanboy histrionics about the movie “ruining Star Wars” or engaging in “character assassination of Luke Skywalker” is a) creepily invested in the fates of fictional characters and should grow up, and b) clearly doesn’t remember the prequels. Because as far as I can recall, The Last Jedi did not feature any of the following:

  • Darth Vader ranting about sand
  • Darth Vader exclaiming, “Yippee!”
  • Darth Vader getting revealed as the creator of C-3PO, the absolute dumbest bit of fan service in the history of cinema
  • Spinning, which is a good trick
  • Jar-Jar Binks
  • Jar-Jar Binks stepping in poop
  • Jar-Jar Binks inexplicably granting emergency powers to Chancellor Palpatine, thereby becoming responsible for the rise of the Empire
  • Jar-Jar Binks being the key to all this, because he’s a funnier character than we’ve ever had before
  • Being in my very soul, tormenting me
  • The high ground
  • Going too far in a few places

Anyway… we were talking about Wilco, right? Right. Star Wars was easily the best Wilco in a decade, as much for its pacing and aesthetics as the quality of the tunes. It’s spiky, dark, electric, and fast-paced, almost front to back. “Where’d all Tweedy’s mumbled acoustic songs about death go?” you might have wondered upon listening to it. The answer is here, on Schmilco, which was written at the same time as Star Wars but culled out into a separate album for aesthetic reasons. This strategy, sometimes adopted by artists who can’t or won’t edit themselves, rarely pays off. One of those albums is almost invariably going to be weaker than the other and fans are just going to wish the band had pulled the best songs from each record to create one super album. In this case, I’m glad Wilco went that way – not because both albums are of equal quality (they’re not), but because had Star Wars’s breakneck style been tempered by a few of Schmilco’s quiet, roosty tracks, the impact might have been dulled.

Still, that leaves us with almost an entire album of quiet, roosty tracks in Schmilco, which is, well, not as exciting. I was bored stiff with Schmilco when it first came out, dismissed it, and set aside for over a year. But having finally picked it up again recently for review purposes, I have come to recognize the subtle beauty sewn into every acoustic strum and delicate harmony. But I do mean subtle. Many of the electric guitars are so clean and muted you can barely hear them at first, but listen closely and you’ll hear Nels doing his usual squiggly freakout Nels things. Jeff sounds mumblier than ever, practically comatose in places, but make the effort to pay attention to what he’s saying and you’ll be rewarded with some of his most personal lyrics. This is an album where you’ve gotta dig for the gold more often than not, but the intricacy of the band dynamics is really remarkable to a trained and patient ear. In rock music, we usually associate great chemistry or virtuosity with, like, ten minute jazz fusion solos or funky dance grooves. Not with gentle folk rock. But take something like “Nope,” actually one of the few semi-bouncy and upbeat tunes on here. Compositionally, it’s pretty damn straightforward. But listen to the way Glenn occasionally turns the beat on its head and then right back again. Check out how perfectly all those differently toned guitars in the background lock together in unexpected concert. Even the acoustic rhythm guitar is about the most perfect strumming ever strummed. Even if you’re one of those people who think Tweedy’s songwriting has gone down the dad rock toilet since Sky Blue Sky, it’s difficult not to marvel at, a dozen years into their existence, how locked in the current Wilco lineup is; at how they can elevate even Tweedy’s dullest songs.

That’s not to say that’s what they have to do on all or even most of Schmilco. In fact, possibly the best song on here is the one on which the full band barely features: “Normal American Kids,” an early Dylan-style childhood reverie about growing up alongside conformist little fuckers with boring suburban parents and not just yearning to be different, but living in fear of turning out to not be so different after all. Anyone who felt any kind of artistic drive while coming of age can relate, and hearing Jeff trace back his motivations for doing what he does now to their very origins is truly moving. “If I Ever Was a Child,” the lead single, also mines feelings of nostalgia, but does so set instead to gorgeous, summer afternoon folk rock, like Neil Young at his most rustic, bursting forth with twangy guitar/dobro licks and stunning high harmonies.

Otherwise, though, it says something that for the most part, the other best songs on the album are the least typical of said album. Like, am I crazy, or does “Someone to Lose” sound like a folkier Pavement? Back me up here. Then there’s “Locator,” Jeff’s ode to the GPS feature on his iPhone, which, with its loud bass, lurching rhythm, and squealing guitars, probably should have been on Star Wars. In fact, it would have made complete sense for it to trade places with Star Wars’s “Taste the Ceiling,” a drab by-numbers strummer that would have fit in much more naturally on Schmilco. I sense a conspiracy! Get the FBI on it. They’re totally not doing anything else important right now.

Ultimately, there are just a couple too many slow, samey strummers for Schmilco to rise above merely “solid,” no matter how much scrumptious sonic candy they come packaged with. It certainly doesn’t help that the album peters out, ending with its three most boring songs – well, not counting “Common Sense” an atonal piece of fuckery that may well be the most unpleasant Wilco song ever. From what I can ascertain, it appears to be a favorite of some Wilco fans, who are apparently unable to distinguish between “daring and experimental” and “a cat being disemboweled.” I mean, jesus, people. Clean out your damn ear canals.

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