With the release of their seventh studio album, Wilco has found an equilibrium between the various directions of its past releases. Having cast aside abstract experimentation in favor of more succinct melody and songwriting on their previous album, Sky Blue Sky, they, in some eyes, over simplified. Now, they have rebounded with mature soundscapes, smart lyrics, lush melodies and more. No longer the alt-country kids who discovered synthesizers or the rock band that set aside their synthesizers for the sake of simply jamming, Wilco is a band that has found itself amongst all of these identities and embraced them for the better. This is Wilco (the album.)
Shortly after the release of their 2007 release, Love Is Simple, Akron/Family faced the amicable departure of a founding band member, which, for a four-piece band whose music features striking bouts of improvisation, could have been the end of the group. However, after tours that incorporated Megafaun and Greg Davis (both as openers and onstage with Akron/Family), the remaining trio slipped into the studio to record their followup release, Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free. In doing so, they have concocted another bold work of psychedelic freak-folk that is a treat for fans everywhere.
Opener, “Everyone Is Guilty”, picks up where the last record left off, opening with an afrobeat groove, chant-like vocals and a swirl of keys and strings, and charging guitars. I’d swear one of the breaks could be from a YES album except that YES albums never had looseness of the band. “The River” sounds very much as if it could have been on the previous album (which, if you’ve read my review, you’ll know that to be a high compliment.)
“Creatures” strikes, at first, as more of a departure, sounding a bit like a stripped down Animal Collective number but it is followed directly by the straight acoustic guitar/vocal dreamscape of “The Alps & Their Orange Evergreen”.
“Set ‘Em Free”, whose lyrics lend the album its name, is simply a gorgeous cascade of acoustic and steel guitars backing a simple vocal. This leads to the ragged horns of the intro to the album’s longest number, “Gravelly Mountains Of The Moon”. This one evokes the abandon of the group’s live shows with wild electric guitars manic drums and vocals. This might be the true test. If you put on this album and are willing to listen beyond this song, you may be a true fan.
Once you’ve passed the test, you’re set enjoy the pleasant melodies and harmonies of “Many Ghosts” and the ripping, instrumental, power-trio attack of “MBF” (complete with appropriate screams and laser chaos noises.)
From the wreckage of “MBF”, comes the slow chanting intro of “They Will Appear” which breaks into an exuberant, galloping, climax.
“Sun Will Shine” follows with a simple, repeated lyric, “Sun will shine but I won’t hide” that is carried by an almost gospel tinged positivity before lifting into more typical stratospheric terrain and finding itself in the midst of a drunken Salvation Army rendition of Auld Lang Syne. This followed by a single piano accompanying the groups vocal harmonies on the brief, slightly sad yet optimistic number, “Last Year”.
Ending an album on a “downbeat” song is, I suppose, a risk for some bands but Akron/Family clearly is not “some bands”. Both live and via LP they set out to lead you on a journey from here, to who-knows-where and back again and this record accomplishes the mission beautifully. By all means, pick it up and go see them live.
Note: This review was written in March but, for some reason, never posted. Enjoy.
After skirting the spectre of the concept album on their previous release, The Crane Wife, The Decemberists have returned with a full blown, unabashed, concept record that is bound to continue their growing fame.
I was going to try to write a song-by song review or a narrative of my listening experience but, breaking this album down in such a way does it no justice. I could attempt to recount the tale told on the album but that too would not do it justice. From the “Prelude” as it eases into life from distant rumbling to rushing organs and guitars through the passionate “Wager All” to the heavy guitars and vocals of “The Wanting Comes In Waves”, this record has everything one could want from The Decemberists.
They have grown in leaps with each record from the arcane folk shanties on the early albums (wherein the band felt to be far more of a backup instrument to Colin Meloy’s songwriting) to the 18 minute epic single, The Tain, to their last album The Crane Wife on which they began to embrace their capacity to rock. Now they submit a work that flat out rocks with mastery. They steer from quiet, romantic, ballad to balls to the wall power chords and back again deftly and with purpose.
Meloy’s well crafted songs are as strong as ever; rather than be overshadowed by the heftier arrangements they thrive and live in a world all the more vivid. “The Rake Song” contains the darkest of Meloy’s work of late telling a dire tale of a man who, upon finding himself a widower left with three children, seeks to divest himself of “burden”. Wow. Dark but a strong and even catchy song. “The Wanting Comes In Waves” was an early favorite but, after a few more listens, I think that that “Wager All” has surpassed it in my personal estimation. Honorable mention to the flat-out metal (ala early Tull or Sabbath) on “The Queen’s Rebuke/The Crossing” that number straight rawks.
All in all, this is a fabulous record which proves that The Decemberists are far more than an indie flash-in-the-pan. These guys are a dynamic and growing group that has clearly a lot more to offer than a few pretty songs. Buy this record (yes, I said “record” it is available on vinyl) and give it repeated listens. Best if played through in a sitting rather than shuffled on your iPod, this album reveals itself more and more with each listen. This is a must-buy record folks, and is likely to appear prominently atop many top ten lists come December and January.
Btw, the cd and lp are available everywhere but I can’t say enough about the friendly customer service at The Decemberists’ online shop. Check them out, buy this record and any of their previous releases that you might have missed. Did I mention that all of their albums are available on vinyl?