Have you ever borrowed someone’s daydream?
On the occasion of Wilco’s release of their much-anticipated live album, I would like to reflect on the importance of this record and the band that made it. Like so many others, my welling enthusiasm for Kicking Television: Live in Chicago shrank with bitter disappointment when I learned that their live project would be limited to a double-disc record, and not include an accompanying DVD. Instead of divulging their reasons for that choice, (for clues, however, try pondering the album’s title) I would point anyone interested to an excellent interview with Tweedy in Paste magazine.
Having just recently considered with a good friend the provocative, reoccurring phenomena of love ‘em or hate ‘em reactions to Wilco from our acquaintances, I am strangely curious about what it is that keeps me so interested in their music. For some reason, I love listening to it, playing it and thinking about it as well. It seems to really give me something to engage with; not only through the CD’s but much more so as a live concert. I guess that’s why Kicking Television has been so enjoyable for me.
For anyone that has listened carefully to the past few albums, the inevitable question remains: Can they pull off that sound live? Kicking Television obliterates that concern. The recording of those two nights in Chicago contain more sonic ambiance and spontaneity than any of the studio recordings. Not only do the guys master the precedent of their albums, but they embellish the fabric of their sound with rich, textual layers of vibrancy and colour. Encircling the core of Tweedy’s serenades and rising off the driving rhythms of Stiratt and Kotche, float the exotic jazz musings of Nels Cline on lead guitar and the soft accents of John Jorgenson’s piano. In this way, tracks like “Company in my back” and “Via Chicago” come alive in ways unimagined on the studio releases. The careful balance struck between the sombre echoes of “Jesus, etc.” and “One by one” and the raw desperation of “At least that’s what you said” and “Misunderstood” go along way in capturing the essence of their live show, evoking for me powerful memories of the emotions I experience at their show this past summer.
My fascination with Wilco, however, has not always been so strong. Just a few years ago, I heard Yankee Hotel Foxtrot for the first time and wrote it off as an Americana version of Kid A. Interestingly enough, some Reprise records exec’s must have had a similar experience; recall the now infamous tale of Wilco’s reversal of fortune with Warner Bros. immortalized by Sam Jones in the film I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. Contained within that documentary, you will find an insightful interview with a Rolling Stone editor who perceptively dissected the whole affair. Basically, he explained that the album, like others since, required a careful listen. Unfortunately, our current culture is not so keen on careful listening. But Wilco, with the help of Warner Bros., has made a prolific run at opposing that unfortunate trend in society.
While much of the so-called ‘Alt. Country’ genre is still hell-bent on the ethno-musicological interests of resurrecting an ‘old’ sound, Tweedy and the guys write songs for tomorrow through a veil of the past. With simple folk songwriting and electronicly creative arrangements in the studio space, Wilco attempts new ways of constructing, and often deconstructing, Americana. Tweedy’s unique approach gives his listeners just enough of the human touch in his lyrics to evoke resonance but keeps a certain, wary distance from autobiography. His style offers a glimpse, a window of emotion, while at the same time elusively avoiding the intense abyss of a more austerely confessional approach. Tweedy’s subtle resonances are made possible through the tempered use of soft melody and sheer noise, a soundscape representative of the all too familiar echoes of our industrial environment. Treading the aural space of a Wilco record can best be described as borrowing a friend’s daydream. Take a listen to “I am trying to break your heart” or “Radio Cure,” and see what I mean. While many may not share my appreciation for Wilco’s approach, we can all acknowledge the respect they give their audience. In an age where the music industry is frantically searching for the most cost-effective pop formulas to package scores of pre-digested tunes, Wilco requires something from its audience: imagination! To their credit, imagination is what makes Kicking Television so powerful.
More than just a great representation of their show, Kicking Television sends Wilco fans a subtle message. Unlike most other contemporary pop/rock, Wilco refuses to be just another product of their time. Their simple choice to release a live album instead of cashing in on DVD sales shows me that they expect a similar resolve from their fans. They would like to remind us that music is a gift, not merely a universal right of citizenship in this post-industrial civilization. No one is oblivious to the preponderance of music outlets available to us today. Consider how Descartes famous dictum could easily be replaced with a more updated sentiment: “I am therefore ipod.” As music has come to mean less and less to us as a culture, can we find a way to enjoy it a fresh? Maybe, but only with some imagination.
See Wilco’s site to preview or purchase Kicking Television, www.wilcoworldnet. Also, check out the Paste Magazine interview with Tweedy: www.pastemagazine.com/action/article?article_id=2421.