Wilco Schmilco

[dBpm; 2016]

Rating: 1.5/5

Styles: Starbucks folk, minivan thrash
Others: Fleet Foxes, Jack Johnson, The Hand and the Heart

Death, taxes, Schmilco. The latest album from Jeff Tweedy is certain to scratch the itch of midlife. The band, much like many of its fans, seems to have settled into the familial and familiar. It’s harder to find excitement at a brash, young band playing as loud as possible in the hopes of shocking an audience awake on a Tuesday night. That fiery brand of music is but a well-regarded memory, as far as Schmilco is concerned.

Although some may argue that Wilco had few shocking moments to begin with, fans of the band’s earliest days can still recall with halcyon precision many of its most well-worn chestnuts, with Tweedy drawing favorable comparisons to Guthrie and Westerberg. Even as the band began to settle into a rhythm after the hoopla of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot died down, leaving only the shell of that steely excitement and boundary pushing, there were still moments that seemed to hint that Tweedy and company were just in stasis, that soon enough they’d recharge and once more break apart genres all for the enjoyment of bucking expectations.

Yet the decade after A Ghost is Born featured little more than one-off appearances of that scrappy ol’ band. It became repetitious, albums filled with carbon copies of original memories that carried none of the gravitas or circumstance. A child is only born once, and any other recreation of that once-in-a-lifetime magic invades the majesty of that moment. Last year’s Stars Wars was the first sign that Wilco finally understood that concept. All the years Tweedy had spent in retreat from that punkish past was now coming back to collect. While Star Wars wasn’t an emphatic call back to youthful experimentation, it at least hinted at a Wilco coming out of slumber. Maybe this would be a band that could reinvent once again, rather than find itself just to be happy in its own skin.

Sadly, and in spite of its exciting play on Harry Nilsson’s beloved Nilsson Schmilsson, Schmilco is missing the same spark that drove Schmilsson. Where Nilsson was relentless in pursuit of something other than settling down, Tweedy has gone the other way. The sparks that riddled Star Wars — the skronk, the bends, the warps, all of which gave indication that the Wilco of old was still lurking — have now vanished. As Nilsson continued to drown himself, endlessly searching for an answer at the bottom of a bottle and with a cavalcade of talent friends, Tweedy seems content to just coast along, despite aligning himself with what is easily Wilco’s most talented configuration.

Some of the evidence can be found in the album’s run length. Most songs can’t be bothered to eclipse the three-minute mark, with most being acoustic half-thoughts rounded out by casual playing from Kotche, Stirratt, and Cline. There are some highlights, especially the junkyard melody of “Common Sense,” and the playful good-time vibes of “Someone to Lose.” But they’re buried by an album of badly Xeroxed copies of Wilco’s greatest moves: “Heavy Metal Drummer” becomes the half-hearted pitch of “Normal American Kids”; the re-attempted “Forget the Flowers” strips bare its soulful twang for the lifeless facsimile “Quarters”; the racing pulse of “I’m a Wheel” becomes the stumbling headache of “Locator.”

So, here we are, back in the midst of the same tired prattle: Schmilco, that wholesome Wilco-in-duplicate — signed, notarized, and official-like. It’s just enough to keep the Wilco brand healthy, without even hiding Tweedy’s seeming disinterest in keeping his wit keen, the band’s lineup more like a busting waistline built on glut rather than a machine to challenge musical fascists.

And, unfortunately, it all feels in service of the new 9-to-5 ethos of Wilco: a day job, just like the rest.

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