Schmilco may be the best name possible for Wilco’s newest album. While this is a Wilco album, obviously, you wouldn’t know that unless you really listened hard. Gone are a lot of the fuzzy guitars and experimentation of the last few records, in favor of stripped down, folk-y music that is played simply, yet rather stunningly. The production is fantastic as we find, as in a more typical Wilco album, instrumentation at its finest and beautiful guitars, bass, organ, piano, drums, vocals, etc. But now it is simplified. Recorded during the same sessions that brought us Wilco’s last album Star Wars, this really is the yin to that album’s yang. And it’s a real pleasure to listen to.
The album takes what the press release calls a “joyously negative” approach. The songs definitely have some depressing, negative themes. But, staying with the folk tradition that they come out of, the songs are put together in an upbeat, interesting manner. One such gem is “Cry all Day.” As the song title suggests, this is not a “happy” song, but the drums move the song along, the guitars stay steady, and the organ in the background adds some sparse yet needed color to the song. While the lyrics are generally depressing, the song provides a good up-tempo number to offer contrast to some of the slower songs, especially the first two songs “Normal American Kids” and “If I Ever Was a Child” (both of which are sparse and slow, yet hauntingly beautiful).
Another highlight for me is “Quarters.” The song starts with a similarly bleak, “joyously negative” approach the drives much of the album. But under that is this beautiful drum work (a highlight of the album is the incredible work of the drums and the effects and interesting ways they make the drums work in the music). On “Quarters,” there is sparse instrumentation but the drums add the color and give a beauty that allows the guitars to come in and provide a very different, yet still somber tone to the album. “Quarters” ultimately acts as an experimental folk song.
“Locator,” following “Quarters,” is the most upbeat song on the album in regards to musical style. In this song, Wilco returns to some of the more electric instrumentation of their previous albums. But, they keep the instrumentation and the song structure very simple. It’s a folk song with electric instruments. And, the song comes oh so close to engaging in the dynamics and fuzz and build that Wilco is so famous for, only to allow the song to simply drop off. It is rather unsettling as they do not really allow the song to resolve. The song is tight though and fits incredibly well with the overall tone of the record.
Overall, Schmilco is probably not an album for all Wilco fans. It is definitely a Wilco record, but it sounds and feels a little differently. However, for fans of Jeff Tweedy’s solo work and some of his other production work, this album will really resonate. For me, someone who has loved Wilco since Being There, I find this to be a welcome addition to their catalogue. It is not their best, but it is a solid, original contribution to the world of Wilco music.