If you haven't figured it out by now--and how could you miss it, given the sudden ubiquity of The Band Warners Paid Twice to Release Once--Wilco's best selling point is its front man's nostalgia for an era when "pop" meant AM free-form, not FM formula; Jeff Tweedy thinks he's still on Reprise, only it's 30 years ago and Joni Mitchell's waiting on the tour bus to split an ounce with Van Dyke Parks and Neil Young. Sure, the albums may be getting "weirder" and more "eccentric," but all that static and heebie-keybie distortion's just there to throw the detectives off the scent of a man in his 30s pretending to be a man in his 50s stuck in the '60s while he crawls into the '70s. He could scrape a rusted nail across a tin bucket and shoot off a cannon in a closet, and still you'd hear in all that racket a perfectly formed tune that'd put a smiley smile on Roger McGuinn's beard.
This collaboration with old Fresh Fellow Scott McCaughey, Tweedy's Wilcomates, Pete Buck, Ken Stringfellow and assorted small-stars (Rebecca Gates, Sean O'Hagen, other people surprisingly not Jim O'Rourke) strips away the weapons of mass obfuscation that mar recent Wilco-etc. releases, especially that years-old Loose Fur art project just unleashed just 'cause. The noise that annoys has vanished, so you no longer have to assume that somewhere in all the perfectly placed clutter is a great song dying for some sun and air. You might even walk away from this joint humming a verse or whistling a chorus; nice to hear the band grinning again, which is what usually happens when friends gather in studios late at night to impress and outdo one another over a bottle or blunt.
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But, alas, this ain't a Wilco record, because it's still Scott M.'s show, meaning he's still singing, meaning he's still whining, meaning he's still grating; the Young Fresh Fellows could always pretend they were a comedy act, which at least explained why he sang that way on purpose. You breathe the deep sigh of relief when Tweedy stops playing utility outfielder ("The Family Gardener," because presumably the housekeeper was out sick), you're gratified when the somnambulant swing gives in to something more up than downer, but never does this ever rise to the level of essential. You've heard it done better, by the extant musicians who occupy Tweedy's restless dreams and fill his heart with talent and taste enough to muster better than this. And by Tweedy, too, who oughta just own up to his pop aspirations and popcraft sensibilities and make his fucking masterpiece already.