When Chris Gehrz (of CWC: The Radio Show semi-fame) and I first started emailing back and forth a few years ago, we talked a lot about our shared tastes in music, especially as they involved two bands: Minneapolis heroes The Jayhawks and indie rock mainstays Wilco. With both bands releasing highly anticipated albums this year, we figured it was a good time for us to talk about them again—with the difference that this time our conversation was at least somewhat formalized and recorded for your perusal and/or benefit.
As you’ll see, we mostly agree about the respective quality of the two albums—The Jayhawks’ Mockingbird Time and Wilco’s The Whole Love—so I’m afraid that if you’re looking for a critical cage match, you’ve come to the right place. But we hope that our thoughts might give a few people a new way of looking at these albums.
Michial Farmer: Chris, you wrote briefly about the new Jayhawks and Wilco albums on your blog this week as part of an excellent larger post about wanting your favorite singers to share your religious convictions. From that post, I gather that you like The Whole Love quite a bit and are, let’s say, underwhelmed by Mockingbird Time. I largely share your feelings, though I suspect I like the new Jayhawks record a bit more than you do. What’s your problem with it?
Chris Gehrz: I should probably start, Michial, by saying that “underwhelmed” is a relative term. I had pretty much given up on seeing anything new from the band (with or without Mark Olson) as we got farther and farther away from 2003 and Rainy Day Music (which felt increasingly like an appropriate send-off). So the prospect of finding the band reconvening for a 4th decade was exhilarating.
Given that starting point, almost anything was bound to collapse under the weight of my expectations. But what can I say? Despite repeated listens, I can only think of it as something less than the sum of its parts: not as tuneful or adventurous as the Louris albums, not as literate as Olson’s solo album (The Salvation Blues).
Like some other ‘Hawks records, the strongest material is frontloaded; to me, the first four tracks far outpace most anything else on the album, with “She Walks in So Many Ways” being the clear stand-out. (Am I legally required to make a Byrds comparison at this point?) But despite some typically fine Louris guitar work (his acoustic picking on “Pouring Rain at Dawn” makes it my favorite cut on the second half of the album) and the small joy of hearing Karen Grotberg chime in on some of the harmonies for the first time in ages, I found most of the album forgettable. Pleasant, but forgettable. And in a couple of cases, pretty awful.
Do you want to talk about the title track, or should I? 🙂
Farmer: I’ll talk about the title track–and of course you can add to my thoughts–because I think it’s a microcosm of my problems with Mark Olson’s songwriting in general. “Mockingbird Time” is the sort of ponderous ballad that believes it has something heavy to say, man, and just to make sure you get the point, it says it four times in the first four lines:
Yesterday is gone like the wind
Like the wind, it is gone
Yesterday is gone like the wind
Like the wind, it is gone
The best songwriters in the country idiom take clichés and rejuvenate them; Olson is at least intermittently capable of doing so. (I haven’t heard Salvation Blues, but “Pray for Me,” from Tomorrow the Green Grass, is a good example of his elevation of clichés.) But he doesn’t do it in this song: “Yesterday is gone like the wind” is the sort of cliché that has long since been stripped of any literal or metaphorical meaning, and inverting it and repeating it twice doesn’t do much to bring it back. And the melody is boring, too!
Throughout the album, in fact, Olson seems to content to take country/Americana stock images and reproduce them in simple grayscale, adding nothing at all interesting. “Tell us what to do, Black Eyed Susan,” he says at one point. Is he talking to a woman or a flower? More importantly, who can force himself to care? Occasionally he’ll get a good one off; there’s a bizarre line in that same song where he talks about a typewriter at a business college, and it’s just arcane and left-of-center enough to be compelling. But mostly his lyrics are bad, bad, bad.
I read an interview with Olson—who, I should say, seems like a perfectly nice guy and who has written or co-written at least five of my favorite songs in the world—where he pointed out that Gary Louris tends to write straightforwardly, whereas he writes with a “little more mystery.” This is the surface-level difference between the two of them, yes—but the difference is that Olson tends to hide the pedestrian beneath the “mystical” and Louris tends to cover something profound with something straightforward. I always think of “Stick in the Mud” from Sound of Lies; addressing, I assume, his ex-wife, he says, “Let me be nice to you / You’re still my best friend.” Those simple lines—maybe the saddest I’ve ever heard—contain depths that nothing I’ve heard from Olson (certainly nothing on Mockingbird Time) gets at.
I think you’re right to point to “She Walks in So Many Ways” and “Pouring Rain at Dawn” as highlights. It’s also interesting that these are two songs that downplay Olson’s involvement. “She Walks” has really beautiful four-part harmonies (and, as you mention, a stolen Roger McGuinn riff), and “Pouring Rain at Dawn” is unquestionably a Louris song.
But I may be being too hard on Mark Olson. You’re more of a fan of his than I am; I like the Jayhawks much more when he’s not with them, and I’ve never sought out an Olson solo record. Am I missing something in his songwriting or singing?
Gehrz: I think we’re closer on the great Louris/Olson debate than I may have intimated, Michial. I was shocked how much I liked Salvation Blues, and generally play Sound of Lies and Rainy Day Music more often even than Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow the Green Grass. (Let’s not speak of Smile.) And I think we agree that Louris also was generous enough to share some of his best songs with Golden Smog. (Not to mention the Dixie Chicks! If you want to go down that road . . . Do you think Louris has a house in Spain called Casa Everybody Knows?)
To be sure, Louris is capable of writing clunkers. It turns out that repeating a line (and then doing it again, and maybe again) doesn’t actually make it more profound. (cf. “High Water Blues” and “Hey Mr. Man”) But I think you’re exactly right in your analysis of the distinction in writing styles: “Olson tends to hide the pedestrian beneath the ‘mystical’ and Louris tends to cover something profound with something straightforward.”
Which is why “Closer to Your Side” is probably the best Olson lyric on here. There’s some inversions that I can take or leave (“You my heart I can give it to / You my soul I can make it with…”), but for the most part, he plays it straight: “Please let me be the one / To see you in the day”; “It’s hard to make things better / Go ahead and try, go ahead and try.”
I’m actually more of a fan of Olson’s voice than his lyrics. One of the nicest features on the DVD that accompanies the album is a brief documentary built around clips of an interview with Olson and Louris. Around the 5:00 mark, as they talk about the famous meshing of their voices, Olson explains:
I’ve always thought of melody in terms of the viola. Like when I sing along with a song, I’m always singing this weird counter-melody. When I learned other songs, I never really sang the correct melody.
There’s also something distinctive about his phrasing (and the way it shapes his writing) that I’m not a good enough singer myself to understand or explain, but the viola analogy clicked. I’ve known a few viola players, and they all have this slightly off-kilter approach to both melody and harmony, never quite going the direction you’d expect.
Then you add in Louris, who explains as the interview continues that he has an ear for high harmony (and, I’ve heard him say before, a voice that he thinks sounds like a woman’s), and you’ve got the unique phenomenon of two harmony/counter-melody singers, neither of whom sings a traditional lead part, fronting an often quite melodic band. Where the new album best recaptures the old magic that blend is front and center: “She Walks in So Many Ways” and especially “Pouring Rain at Dawn.” On the latter, Olson’s harmony isn’t particularly complex (at times he’s in unison with Louris, or an octave lower), but the way the vocals and guitars intertwine is lovely.
For better (those harmonies) and worse (some of the lyrics), the album made me think of CSN(Y). Like that group, The Jayhawks work only when those other-worldly voices unironically singing neo-hippie sentiments (C/N) are grounded in sounds and rhythms that still recognizably descend from roots music genres like country and blues (S/Y).
If you don’t mind my moving the conversation towards Wilco . . . Is Jeff Tweedy the lyricist mystically pedestrian, straightforwardly profound, both, neither, or something else entirely?
Farmer: In a lot of ways, Tweedy seems to have a more interesting progression as a writer and musician than either Louris or Olson, who have maintained a fairly steady style over the years. But Tweedy started off writing very straightforward punk/country songs–both with Uncle Tupelo and in the early years of Wilco—and then took a sharp left turn, spurred on by drugs, Henry Miller, and Jim O’Rourke. I tend to think Tweedy’s lyrics are at their most effective when they are most obtuse, which means I dig what he does on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born more than on any of his other albums.
But “obtuse,” like “underwhelmed,” is a relative term. Tweedy’s written some strange stuff over the years, but it’s usually pretty obvious what he’s getting at even when he dances around direct statement. “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” is a good example. I don’t know what “Take off your Band-Aid ‘cos I don’t believe in touchdowns” means, exactly, but the “meaning,” if you want to call it that, of the song itself is fairly obvious on an emotional level. Ditto an even stranger lyric like “Spiders (Kidsmoke).”
Besides all that, I’m oversimplifying Tweedy’s progression as a lyricist, since through all eras of his songwriting he has maintained a certain quota of (occasionally embarrassing) straightforward songs. So even on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, you have “Heavy Metal Drummer,” and on other albums you get songs like “Hate It Here,” “Walken,” and “Everlasting Everything.” The Whole Love, likewise, while it’s got the cutup poetry of “Art of Almost,” has as its centerpiece two of the finest and most straightforward Tweedy songs of the last decade: “Capital City” and “Open Mind.” It’s the instrumentation rather than the lyrics that carry those songs, but the lyrics don’t get in the way, at least.
Which brings me to my next question: Do you listen to Wilco primarily for the lyrics? I think at their best, Tweedy’s lyrics merely mesh with whatever the musicians around him are doing. Very few of them would work as standalone poetry–and if you don’t believe me, you can read his book of poems, Adult Head. The best I can say about it is that it’s better than Billy Corgan’s Blinking with Fists, which came out around the same time. Every now and then a Tweedy lyric will grab me, but it’s usually more for mellifluousness than for “meaning” as such. Do you disagree?
Gehrz: I hope you didn’t have your heart set on an Aykroyd/Curtin-style Point/Counter-Point, since I’m going to have to agree with you yet again. Tweedy is capable of some amazing lyrics. (Some of my favorite lines are back-to-back on Ghost: the metaphors of “A fixed bayonet through the great southwest / to forget her” and “in the deep chrome canyons of the loudest Manhattans” from “Hummingbird,” and then “if I ever was myself / I wasn’t that night” from “Handshake Drugs.”) But for the most part, Tweedy’s words (and his voice, which has worn well and become more nuanced over time) are just another instrument in the band. Detached from that context . . . Er . . .
Take “I Might,” for example: “A cow’s neck / Bad shave / In the low blow slo-mo” or “The Magna Carta’s / On a Slim Jim blood / Brutha!” Sheer nonsense. “Hoodoo Voodoo” for adults. But, Lord help me, add a sprinkle of glockenspiel and a dash or two of Cline and shake it all together with some thundering fuzz bass and . . . Well, I might just keep it looping for the rest of this conversation.
I think what it points to is that Tweedy was self-aware to realize that he was much better as a part of a band than apart from one. (I think this is why I don’t really love Summerteeth so much as admire it from a distance: it feels less like a band than anything else in the Wilco canon.) I don’t know of too many other frontmen so willing to share the spotlight with their sidemen as Tweedy does on The Whole Love. Most satisfying for those of us who’ve been with Wilco for most or all of their run, bassist John Stirratt (the only founding member left besides Tweedy, and perhaps the nicest, most unassuming guy in rock’n’roll now that R.E.M. is retired and Mike Mills has more time to play golf) is allowed to be the star of the first two tracks. (Ever since Ghost is Born, it could be argued that Stirratt is Wilco’s MVP. Not the most talented player, but the indispensably stable core who can lock in a rhythm or, as on that album’s “At Least That’s What You Said,” anchor the guitar heroics in melody.)
I’m trying hard, by the way, not to talk about Wilco by comparison or contrast to The Jayhawks; they’re different bands trying to accomplish different things. But having the two albums come out so close together, and then listening to them one after the other for a week, it’s even harder not to notice that one of these bands is vastly more adventurous than the other.
Earlier I compared The Jayhawks to CSN(Y). In the case of Wilco, the (Y) is clearly the point of comparison (all for the best, as far as I’m concerned). Not just because Wilco does a pretty good Crazy Horse impression (see “At Least That’s What You Said” again), but because they exemplify what the liner notes to Rust Never Sleeps describe as “Young’s conviction that an artist’s reach must always exceed his grasp; that the alternative to creative growth was stagnation and irrelevancy.” I admire Tweedy & Co. for their willingness to let the world listen to them overreaching. I’m not sure anything they’ve released is either as weak as Young’s early 1980s experiments or as consistently brilliant as Rust (or as compelling/scary as Tonight’s the Night), but let’s face it: no one who listened to 22-year old Jeff Tweedy insist that “We don’t care what happens outside the screen door” could have predicted that, twenty years after No Depression, his new band would release an eighth album that begins with a track so unlikely and innovative (“Art of Almost”) that the L.A. Times published an oral history of its evolution.
Of course, that same restless (or tiresome, for some) spirit makes it hard when someone asks (as did our friend Sam Mulberry on the CWC podcast) for a representative Wilco album that would be a good starting point for someone who hasn’t heard the band before. I said something to the effect of, “Whatever’s the newest album.”
What would you recommend, Michial? Is The Whole Love the place to start for a Wilco neophyte?
Farmer: I’d forgotten about the lyrics to “Hummingbird,” which, as you note, are very good—even if they’re mostly paraphrases of Henry Miller.
Now it’s time for my “Chris, you ignorant slut” moment, I guess: I don’t like “I Might” very much. In fact, when the band released the track as a single a few months back, I was convinced that it signified another slide in quality from a band that had been on the decline for at least six years. In the context of the album, I do like it more; its exuberance is catchy, but it’s also tempered by the weirder songs around it on the record. But it’s still likely my least favorite of the new songs.
In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that I don’t think the record really coheres until its fifth song, “Black Moon,” which sounds almost like an outtake from Uncle Tupelo’s March 16-20, 1992—with some added Nels Cline weirdness on the top of it. It’s less a song than an atmosphere, but as I mostly listened to the album while getting ready for work every morning around 5:45, it’s the right sort of atmosphere for me.
Tweedy is definitely best as part of a band, and to his credit, as you say, he seems to recognize that. Have you read Greg Kot’s book on Wilco, Learning to Die? Reading that book, I was left with the distinct impression that Tweedy’s talent is the sort that doesn’t have legs on its own; rather, he needs another person to serve as his catalyst. In Uncle Tupelo, obviously, that person was Jay Farrar. For the first half of Wilco’s run, it was Jay Bennett. (I’d go so far as to suggest that your dislike of Summerteeth is a distaste for Bennett . . . to quote myself.) Then it was Jim O’Rourke, in the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born era, not to mention the two strange records he and Glenn Kotche made with O’Rourke as Loose Fur. I’ve spent the last half-decade wondering if Nels Cline—incredible guitarist though he is—might be responsible for Tweedy’s lackluster musical output. The Whole Love largely eases those fears, but I do wonder if my theory still holds and if Cline serves as his most recent (and longest-lasting) catalyst.
To tie this back into the Jayhawks, Gary Louris in particular is a much more conventional co-writer; he clearly prefers to write songs with other people rather than sitting down and coming up with something wholly alone. So when he’s not writing with Olson, his credits usually include people like Kraig Johnson (of Golden Smog), the Dixie Chicks, Jayhawks bass player Marc Perlman—and of course Tweedy himself. As a songwriter who finds it very difficult to write anything with other people—I always gave full songwriting credit to all the members of the band I was in, but usually I came in with the song fully written and they tweaked the arrangement—I’m fascinated by Louris’s ability to play well with others.
But back to Wilco. Sam’s question is a difficult one because all the albums are so different. I think Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is definitely their best, but if the person to whom you’re recommending it isn’t comfortable with moderate experimentation, it’s probably not a great place to start. You’re probably better off with Being There, which has songs that run the gamut of what Wilco could do in 1997. They’d be capable of much more later on, but that album is quality.
Stirratt, for what it’s worth, is indeed one of the great underrated bass players in rock music. The opening instrumental salvo of “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” simply wouldn’t be what it is without that bass line, which is earth-shattering but strangely melodic. I’ve also always enjoyed his high harmonies, from “A Shot in the Arm” to “Theologians” to the title track on The Whole Love, which also features a great punchy bassline.
Here’s a question for you: What does it say about me and my religious convictions that my two favorite songs on The Whole Love are the two most explicitly anti-Christian: “Born Alone” and “One Sunday Morning”?
Gehrz: It says that you’re a person of deep religious convictions and impeccable musical taste, Michial, because they’re two of my favorite songs as well. (On top of any meaning Tweedy intends and/or we attach, they’re just very pretty songs.) I’m sure some of the same ambivalence you’re feeling came through in my post on being a Christian fan of Wilco (where I quoted both songs). Perhaps what it means is that—for all that we just wrote in praising the weird, the inscrutable, and the nonsensical in Tweedy’s lyrics—we can appreciate the bracing splashes of candor as well. Sometimes I need singer-songwriters to stop trying to be artistes and just tell it like they’re Merle Haggard (another of our mutual favorites, I believe).
I ended up recommending Being There on the CWC podcast, simply because it was the first Wilco CD I ever bought and that worked out alright. (It’s still my sentimental favorite. So no, I don’t dislike Jay Bennett, so long as he’s playing the role of insanely talented double-threat sideman—my happiest moment as a guitarist was when I bought my Telecaster and learned to play the riff on “Outtasite”—and not that of the Pro Tools-wielding Brian Wilson wannabe for whom, as Stirratt put it in Kot’s book, “the studio became an end in itself.”) But I’m not sure that The Whole Love‘s not the place to start. It’s easily the most interesting and accomplished album of the three produced by this current incarnation of Wilco (not counting the live double-album, Kicking Television), and with that lineup feeling so settled, probably a good indicator of what to expect down the line.
And in that configuration, I’m not sure if Tweedy has a single catalyst, or if his bandmates will push him (to further heights as an artist or to the edge of insanity) in the same way that the Jays (Farrar and Bennett) did. Both Cline and Kotche come across as rare examples of musical prodigies who are utterly selfless, happy to do whatever much or little is necessary for the song. Likewise, Pat Sansone (who helped produce and mix the new album and seems to play at least half a dozen instruments on every song) brings Bennett-like versatility, studio expertise, and (as Tweedy says in another LA Times piece) “infinite stamina for the details,” but I can’t see him driving Tweedy as crazy as Bennett seemed to do during the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot sessions. (See the documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, in which it occasionally feels like Jay Bennett — may he rest in peace; I really don’t dislike him—is trying to break Tweedy’s mind).
If the title track on the previous album was a valentine from Tweedy to fans (“Wilco / Wilco / Wilco will love you, baby”), I can’t help but read its counterpart on The Whole Love as a pledge from Tweedy to the band: while acknowledging that “I know that I won’t be / The easiest to set free,” he will “still love you to death” and hope to “know when to show you my / Whole love.” The band has never felt more, well, whole, and Tweedy (channeling Lou Reed on “I Might”) might actually be “all right.”
Of course, that song might be for his wife, or his children, or his country (disappeared), or the Cubs, or—I do pray—his God. Or all of the above. Or none. I fear that my attempt to play critic is starting to make me sound more Christgau and less Chris, so I’ll make this my final word and invite you to close us with a benediction, Michial.
Farmer: Of course, Haggard doesn’t always play it exactly straight, either, does he? I remember his remark about the line from “Okee from Muskogee” that says “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee.” “That’s about the only place I don’t smoke it,” he said.
My Wilco listenership began with Summerteeth, which means it holds a special place in my heart. I also find Being There to be rather overstuffed; other than “Sunken Treasure” and “Someday Soon,” I rarely listen to that second disc. For all its virtue, I suspect The Whole Love will fall into that category, as well. I’ll probably return to “Black Moon,” “Born Alone,” “Open Mind,” the title track, and “One Sunday Morning”—and the rest of the album will take up residence on the external hard drive where I store songs I don’t want to listen to regularly. But I still feel much better about it than I did about Wilco (The Album) and Sky Blue Sky. If it’s not as good as their classic-period albums, they at least sound vital again.
The same, obviously, cannot be said for the Jayhawks on Mockingbird Time. They sound for the life of them like a band that ran out of collective steam a decade and a half ago, and I guess they did: When the Olson/Louris partnership ended, Olson went on to make what you claim as very good solo records, while Louris trooped on with the Jayhawks, with Golden Smog, and eventually on his own solo album. It seems that they would have been better off doing their own thing, or maybe coming together for one song every decade, as Simon and Garfunkel did with “My Little Town.”
Either way, I’ve enjoyed reviewing these albums with you, Chris, and I hope we’ll find occasion to do it again sometime.
Gehrz: Likewise, Michial. I understand you’re a big fan of Lady Gaga . . .