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It doesn’t really matter that Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy had a falling-out with his record labelhe’s still the luckiest man in show business. His first real band, Uncle Tupelo, made him an alt-country kingpin despite a string of B-minus albums, and all of Wilco’s praised-to-the-stratosphere discs are hit-and-miss affairs at best, overlong platters packed with passable pop songs and “experimental” numbers designed to make those passable pop songs sound like surefire hits.
It’s an ingenious strategy: a genuine triumph of lowered expectations. But when, exactly, was the last time you listened to Disc 2 of Being There?
Meanwhile, Paul Westerberg must gnash his teeth every time he reads yet another fawning profile of the Band That Got Dropped. Tweedy has admitted he owes a huge debt to the Replacements great, but his work is hardly a fitting tribute: Even at its very best”Heavy Metal Drummer,” say, from last year’s myth-enriching Yankee Hotel Foxtrotit can’t measure up to some tossed-off little ditty that Westerberg probably wrote in a drunken stupor and then consigned to the Singles soundtrack.
That said, it’s not as if Tweedy’s erstwhile partner in musical crime, Jay Farrar, has exactly done himself proud in his post-Tupelo phase, either. Son Volt, the band Farrar founded in 1994, was a poster child for alt-country’s most peculiar affliction: a congenital weakness for twangier-than-thou authenticity. Sometimes music can be so “real” it sounds fakea point the now-disbanded Volt apparently set out to make on each of its three paint-by-numbers LPs.
It’s a good thing, then, that Uncle Tupelo’s family tree extends beyond its overrated golden boys. The Autumn Defense, a far-flung quartet based in both Chicago and New York, features guitarist John Stirratt, an alumnus of the good Uncle who also plays bass in Wilco, and Pat Sansone, a musical fellow traveler with a renowned gift for knob-twiddling. Ex-Wilcoers Ken Coomer and Bob Egan appeared on the band’s first LP, too, but that lineage doesn’t mean our boys suffer from Tweedyfication. In fact, on the Defense’s latest disc, Circles, Stirratt and Sansone seem more enamored of ’60s and ’70s pop songcraft, resulting in an album that has a lot more to do with California dreamin’ than Nashville skylines.
From the title on down, that’s certainly true of “The Sun in California,” one of the disc’s best tunes. The track is powered (if you can call it that) by gently brushed snare drum, fingerpicked guitar, and a melody so wispy it may evaporate on contact with your stereo speakers. And though the song threatens repeatedly to turn into “The Girl From Ipanema” just around the next chorus, it heads instead in the direction of gorgeously blissed-out Bacharachanalia. There’s even a muted (and possibly synthesized) clarinet solo toward the end that vies for attention with an elegantly plunked piano. “The Answer” is similarly fragile but darker, a mordant, Nick Drake-style weeper rendered with such sweetly pristine harmonies that you may not notice that this band is trying to break your heart, too.
Nowhere is that clearer than on disc-opener “Silence,” which finds the Defense forgoing percussion at first in favor of hushed vocals and swirls of carnivalesque organ. Midway through, bassist Brad Jones and drummer Greg Wiz turn up to help goose the song toward its vaguely psychedelic conclusion. By then, the tune has morphed into something that sounds like an outtake from Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers, a certifiable classic of clinical depression and heavy sedation.
But Circles makes it clear that these guys are capable of more than just bringing on the heartache. The band has a pronounced goofy streak, too, in particular a propensity for feyness that sometimes makes it seem like Belle and Sebastian’s American cousins. In this case, however, you never get the nagging sense that maybe the joke’s on you.
Consider “Written in the Snow,” which begins as a precious, sepia-toned chamber-pop number that conjures a time and place as distant as any imaged by Stuart Murdoch. (“I walk the lane through the village green,” sings Stirrattever so sweetly, of course.) As soon as the track’s casually infectious chorus kicks in, though, it turns out that the time is the ’70s and the place is your favorite station on the AM. Not even schlock-pop godhead David Gates ever managed a chorus of such cheesy perfection. And that goes triple for “The World (Will Soon Turn Our Way),” an elaborately orchestrated pop song that comes complete with a string section, timpani, and a melody just begging to be sung by those Langley Schools Music Project kids.
Admittedly, not every song here is a keeper. Tweedy turns up on “Why I’m Like This,” contributing tremolo-saturated guitar to a tune that tries but fails to combine Ben Folds with the Beach Boys. The melody of “Some Kind of Fool” is a little too mid-period-XTC-ish for anybody’s good. And on “Tuesday Morning,” the band futzes with the chord changes from the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale” and somehow manages to come up with four minutes and change of anonymous lounge pop.
But even on these lesser numbers, Circles is a fairly thrilling sonic experience. The band took nearly a year to record it, and the disc is positively larded with loving attention to detail: The melodies are slight but expertly rendered, the guitars chime with Byrdsian grandeur, and the horn section has a not-so-nasty habit of popping up just when you least expect it. There are deftly placed flourishes of organ, xylophone, and pedal steel, too.
In other words, there’s nothing especially experimental or challenging here, and Circles pretty much succeeds or fails depending on how willing you are to be enveloped by its wistful atmosphere. But if Stirratt & Co. sound rather conventional and instantly familiar, at least they don’t try to hide itand there’s something to be said for that: They sure ain’t Jeff Tweedy. CP