We’d like to welcome back Ted Frank for today’s Holiday Gift Guide review! Ted is taking a look at the new two-CD anthology What’s Your 20? Essential Tracks 1994-2014 from alt-rock greats Wilco. (Since 2004, the line-up has consisted of vocalist/guitarist Jeff Tweedy, bassist John Stirratt, guitarist Nels Cline, multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone, keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen and drummer Glenn Kotche.) This first-ever retrospective of the Grammy Award-winning band has been produced for the Nonesuch label by Cheryl Pawelski of Omnivore Recordings – a current Grammy nominee this year for Hank Williams’ The Garden Spot Programs 1950 – with the participation of Tweedy and the band, and has been freshly remastered by Bob Ludwig and beautifully designed by Omnivore’s Greg Allen in a digipak. See here for more information on the companion piece to What’s Your 20?: the exquisite 4-CD rarities collection, Alpha Mike Foxtrot! Now, without further ado...
2014 could easily be considered the year of Jeff Tweedy.
It has been an impressive year for the man who started out in the alt-country band Uncle Tupelo (whose milestone album No Depression was reissued this year). Tweedy and his band Wilco released two career-spanning collections on the same day this past November and Tweedy even played alongside his 18-year-old son Spencer on this fall’s release Sukierae (not to mention having songs featured in two critically acclaimed films, Boyhood and St. Vincent). With these kinds of credentials, it would appear that Tweedy should be a cultural icon. Yet, why is it that when Jeff Tweedy sings, “I am so out of tune with you” on Wilco’s stunning track, “Sunken Treasure” from the breakthrough 1996 album Being There, it rings so true in terms of his and Wilco’s public profile?
As Wilco has never had a Hot 100 radio hit, what is the modus operandi when it comes to compiling a 20-year retrospective of the band - especially when the band on hand might just be content to self-reflexively refer to itself as being “out of tune” with its times? The answer comes in the new 2-CD collection from Nonesuch Records, What’s Your 20? This year marks 20 years since Wilco originally came together as a band; hence, the album title. Being a coyly titled collection of 38 “essential tracks,” this newly-remastered set poses the question: What makes something essential? The album’s producer Cheryl Pawelski – aided by Jeff Tweedy, Tony Margherita, and Deb Bernardini – doesn’t actually limit the album to 20 songs, “settling” instead for a generous 38! Again, this is not a collection of chart toppers, nor is it the self-addressed love letter that tends to plague bands with those albatross hit singles. Rather, it is the soundtrack of a band working to bring the varied elements of their distinct sound together. To somewhat define this kind of collection, it is not your typical greatest hits collection. It is an album that reconsiders Wilco’s past only to chart out its future.
Despite lacking pop chart success, the songs selected here are timeless, taking in influences as varied as Woody Guthrie to the Beach Boys to Radiohead. To get an idea of how Wilco has evolved from alt-country to pop, just listen to the transition on Disc 1 from the country rocker “Casino Queen” (Track 4, from 1995’s A.M.) to the plaintive swells of “Misunderstood” (Track 5, from 1996’s Being There). A significant leap in style is evident here within the slide of a single track. It’s a progression comparable to that of Radiohead’s Pablo Honey into The Bends.
The anthology's expansiveness suggests a bliss found in a wealth of riches. As it chronologically propels from Wilco’s first album A.M. to their 2011 release Whole Love, this anthology may be a good starting point album for the newly initiated, but it's actually much more than a mere introduction. (And if 38 songs on two CDs is too major a commitment for you, how about starting with the timeless Summerteeth and then diving into this set next? You'll be hooked.) Equivalent to a “selected poetry” collection rather than a “collected works,” the compilation demonstrates an artistry of omission and rearrangement; there is intentionality by Pawelski and her collaborators in the placement and selection of songs. On average, there are three-to-four songs from each album represented, with two highlights from The Mermaid Sessions, California Stars and Airline To Heaven, the latter of which (reminiscent of Mark Lang’s brilliant guitar playing on his 1976 song, Strawberry Man) is hard to believe was once a Woody Guthrie original lyric since it has been transformed into such a rocker. With such a collection, there is not necessarily an expectation in terms of song selections (since, again, these are not hit singles in the traditional sense of the term), freeing the compilers to explore various avenues. What’s Your 20? is not intended to be a greatest hits album; instead, it rollickingly unfolds into a focused listening experience by a band that defies labels.
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When it comes to songwriting, Wilco covers a lot of ground. Despite having originated in the country twang and rock of a Little Feat or a Byrds, they also frequently morph into minimal soundscape ballads à la the aforementioned Radiohead to keep things interesting. There is an unexpectedness in the Wilco sound - one that keeps the music fresh and effortless. Just consider the gamut when contrasting the wit of the lyrics “I shake like a tooth ache” (“Ashes of American Flags”) with the brooding of “I dreamed about killing you again last night and it felt alright to me…” (“Via Chicago”). It nearly sounds like two completely different bands! What the two abovementioned lyrics indeed have in common is an element essential to Wilco’s DNA – its knack for abrasive humor (which is of little surprise considering Wilco hails from a comedy mecca like Chicago). Yet, to label Wilco a humorous band would be off the mark. Wilco is a band conversant in metaphor, irony, and melancholy - and like any good country artist (again, their origins), they have the ability to tell a real story: just check out a personal “essential," “My Darling” from Summerteeth, which did not make the cut here. In terms of Wilco’s songwriting prowess, the band excels in creating a tension between earnest, biting lyrics and an ease of delivery. Therein lies a music of wit, wisdom, a sonically rich palette, the right balance of soul and blues (thanks again, Chicago) and earnest pleading.
In 1996, Being There was labeled by the alternative rock and roll magazine Raygun as one of the “best records” anyone had heard in “a long time” and to kick off that album, Tweedy sang, “You’re back in your old neighborhood…you’re so misunderstood…you love her, but you don’t know why…you still love rock and roll.” The searching quality of “Misunderstood” (included on Disc 1 here) is echoed in the thread that holds What’s Your 20? together as its traces the band's stylistic evolution. "Sunken Treasure,” another track here off Being There, has Wilco somewhat giving up on that notion of searching and unabashedly admitting to the listener that it’s a band “made by rock and roll”… “tamed by rock and roll”…and one that got its “name from rock and roll.” What’s Your 20?, then, helps the listener to realize that Wilco isn't a "misunderstood” band but rather one of unassuming cool, and one that puts its music before image. Maybe the band itself is that “sunken treasure” Tweedy sang about 18 years ago...
By the time of the compilation’s breezy pop ending (the cuts from Wilco (The Album) and Whole Love), it no longer seems to be concerned with the question, “What’s YOUR 20?” Instead, it leaves the listener wanting more and wondering what’s next from this adventurous band that doesn’t seem to “care anymore,” as their George Harrison inspired-song “You Never Know" states near the end of this retrospective. When a prolific band like Wilco claims it no longer cares, that doesn’t necessarily mean a bad thing! For now, Wilco remains a band that does have a prodigious fan base regardless of the fact that it has yet to receive the kind of radio play it deserves (well, the same could be said of Bob Dylan - and it’s fair to say that he’s pretty good company to keep!). Whatever path the band chooses to take, we will certainly continue to follow. 2014, after all, has been a pretty good year for this 20-year-old band “made by rock and roll.” Highest recommendation!