Wilco, “Ode to Joy” (dBpm)
Wilco’s first studio album after a short hiatus isn’t so much a triumphal return as a small record about big moments.
As bands grow in popularity, the typical response is to make bigger records with songs that will ring out in bigger venues. But Wilco has never followed a traditional career path. Even as its following has expanded since the small-club days of 1994-95, the sextet has continued to make idiosyncratic, at times challenging albums that bridge rootsy Americana and garage-rock with experimental textures. “Ode to Joy” falls on the quirkier side of the Wilco spectrum, a low-key folk album that prizes subtlety and intimacy over immediacy and dynamics.
Jeff Tweedy’s voice and guitar and Glenn Kotche’s drums build a foundation on which their bandmates add subdued colors. Tweedy’s voice rarely rises above a conversational tone, as he delivers sparse lyrics in which personal wishes and insecurities merge with wary, if oblique, perspectives on the state of the planet.
The sound of a tortured guitar string and distorted electronics over a plodding drum beat reflects the downcast mood of the opening “Bright Leaves,” and sets the album’s introspective tone.
The sense that love can, if not conquer all, at least provide a way to navigate the world guides the relatively brisk “Everyone Hides,” a single that came packaged with a video brimming with good-hearted mischief. That playfulness is largely missing from the music, and one yearns for more tear-it-up moments from guitarist Nels Cline, or a more expansive playing field for Kotche. Almost to a fault, the album sounds like a unified work, with little variety in the arrangements.
The album’s themes and the band’s broader potential finally converge on “We Were Lucky,” its murky undertow hinting at greater turbulence. The singer’s good fortune feels shaky at best. As Cline’s agitated guitar solo jabs through the surface, it confirms the narrator’s doubts. It’s a thrilling reminder that expectations can be upended at any moment, even on a quietly uneasy folk album.
Greg Kot, Chicago Tribune
New Pornographers, “In the Morse Code of Brake Lights” (Concord)
The collective’s eighth album is another predictably strong set, with a few new variations and innovations. Neko Case’s powerhouse voice dominates the album more than usual, compensating for the absence of Dan Bejar, who is sadly missing for the second album in a row.
The synths that anchored 2017’s “Whiteout Conditions” take a back seat to ELO-inspired string arrangements. The album’s typically cryptic lyrics return to car metaphors and glimpses of political anger. The piano-driven “Need Some Giants” ranks with the Pornographers’ best songs. It’s remarkable that after nearly 20 years, the band continues to thrill.
Steve Klinge, Philadelphia Inquirer
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