The finale tune to Wilco’s new, bemusedly titled “Schmilco” album comes across as a resigned exhale, an encompassment of all the low-fi, subtly paced sadness that comes before it. Titled “Just Say Goodbye,” the song also sums up the current status of the Chicago band that has spent two decades shedding an alt-country image for a more outward but askew pop and rock persona. “Why am I in my skin again?” asks founder and frontman Jeff Tweedy in state of hushed bewilderment and deflation. “I don’t know how it works.”
Wilco is indeed in its skin again on “Schmilco,” even if the outer layers are a bit more delicate. Downshifting from the crankshaft rock ’n’ roll of last year’s “Star Wars” album, the record begins with a series of predominantly acoustic tunes, highlighted by the opening “Normal American Kids,” an outsider’s glance at youthful expectations that turn out to be alarmingly low. “Shot from a sling, head full of buzz,” Tweedy offers in a quiet, plaintive voice. “I knew what I liked was not very much.”
That sense of tempered tension sticks around for a few tunes until we run head first into “Common Sense.” Over the song’s internalized dilemma (“a burning bush or a button to push”), Wilco’s secret weapons — Nels Cline and Glenn Kotche — emerge, coloring the tune with guitar and marimba chatter, respectively.
The musical temperament is never given much room for release, which is why “Shrug and Destroy,” for all its wistful beauty, sounds like it’s ready to burst at any moment. Therein sits the fascination of “Schmilco,” a record of reckless grace, deceptive tension and what Tweedy has termed “joyously negative” music.
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“Schmilco” comes on the heels of Cline’s newest guitar adventure, a double-disc opus called “Lovers” that is likely to surprise fans of his more avant garde, improvisatory work. On his first record for the famed jazz label Blue Note, Cline opts for large ensemble arrangements rich on orchestral cool and a guitar tone that echoes master lyrical stylists like Jim Hall. Add in a predominantly non-original repertoire than runs from traditionalists Jerome Kern and Rodgers and Hammerstein to such experimentalists as Arto Lindsay and Annette Peacock, and you have a sense of how stylistically far reaching “Lovers” becomes.
There are unusual choices here, such as the noir-like treatment of Sonic Youth’s “Snare, Girl,” which takes on a curious mix of warm tonality and tribal propulsion, a combination that would be right at home on a Bill Frisell record. But there is also Gabor Szabo’s “Lady Gabor,” which explores a restless, dark expansiveness. It’s as romantic, in its own weird way, as the more traditional-leaning pieces on “Lovers.” But there is a touch of Tom Waits mischievousness, too — a sense that this Lovers Lane has just led down a dark alley.