Album Review – Star Wars / Wilco

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot aside, I was a little rusty on Wilco until Star Wars came along as a free download. I knew that Wilco were one of the turn-of-the-century underground success stories, beginning by crafting folk in the ashes of their old band Uncle Tupelo. Star Wars is a vast change from the beginnings of Wilco; it has elements of rock thrown in, contemporary production and Jeff Tweedy’s lyrics have gotten so much better. Star Wars sounds like the softer, less psychedelic moments of Sgt. Pepper’s or an old Neil Young recording, from the acoustic guitars, to the innocent but beautiful words. On the other hand, there’s the distorted guitars of ‘EKG’, which only lasts a minute but opens the album in a suitably wonky fashion.

‘Random Name Generator’ is an odd little rock track, with a tap-worthy guitar and a driving beat. Tweedy admits ‘I kinda like when I make you cry / A miracle every once in a while’ and ‘I think I miss my family, fine’. There are subtle electronics whirring behind the track, and it’s a shame there wasn’t more of this alongside the dusty americana, but it could easily topple the hazy acoustic guitars too. Problem is, with a lot of these songs, they have the same formula: start with acoustic guitars, throw on top the same distorted guitar tone, Tweedy’s wacky lyrics (‘I climb back into the yolk’) and Beatles-ish vocals, and you have a Wilco song. A lot of the time, this repetition lends itself to a lonely American hypnosis, but looking back on the 33-minute album, I begin to be glad that it didn’t stretch longer than this.

On songs such as ‘You Satellite’, Wilco come to life. With a repetitive riff, strange noises and a building crescendo. The five minutes given allow Tweedy and co. to flex their instrumental and lyrical muscles, with Tweedy singing ‘I don’t want to go and I don’t want to stay’. It begins to sound like the ‘Heroin’ by the Velvet Underground if they slowed it right down and wore cowboy hats. On the other hand, the next track ‘Taste The Ceiling’ sounds like Wilco in their comfort zone. It’s a beautiful comfort zone, where Tweedy sings ‘I was on the ceiling / I could almost feel the sun’ and ‘Why do all disasters creep so slowly into view?’. The song is aided by a creepy theremin whirring in the background and a solo that doesn’t have the same distorted tone as previous songs, but a thick, bouncy tone. It’s a much needed change of pace to the wonky-anthems of the rest of the tracklisting.

The moments when Wilco kick it up a notch step out in the tracklisting, such as ‘Pickled Ginger’, which has tight drums and Tweedy’s double-tracked vocals fronting what could easily be one of the best country-punk songs that springs to mind. It’s short, it’s sweet – a bit like ginger.

The half-hour length of Star Wars is probably its biggest downfall, but it also its saviour of repetition. Elongated out it could become tedious, but by cutting it short, Wilco essentially deliver a long EP’s worth of material without the press campaign or build-up to a traditional release after dropping it out of the blue. Therefore, it comes across as a fun project Wilco just decided to drop, instead of a serious cash-maker like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Undeniably, it isn’t a bad album – it’s a fun release that makes music-making seem effortless to Wilco. The instrumentation can be a little tedious to listen to now and again, but the standout tracks are where Wilco jump from polar opposites – punk, folk, americana.

4/10

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