Read what the critics write about Wilco and you walk away with the impression that they're the saviors of modern music. Or its destroyers. Or just a vanity project for a self-indulgent, mercurial tyrant in lead singer Jeff Tweedy. A glorified alt-country band, an avant-garde noise-pop outfit: Every music writer has a label for -- and an opinion of -- Wilco. Perhaps more than any other indie band today, the now-six-piece Chicago group has grown up in a fog of mythology.
That may be because they've produced an almost consistently terrific body of work since Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt broke off from seminal '90s alt-country band Uncle Tupelo in 1994. While fellow Tupelo alum Jay Farrar launched Son Volt, Wilco blasted out country-tinged, occasionally anthemic pop tunes on early records like A.M. and the double-disc Being There, bringing along many (though not all) Tupelo fans and building an ever-increasing base of new ones.
More than likely, though, their notoriety stems from their 2002 record, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot -- both because it was a commercial, critical and artistic success and because its production was the subject of a documentary film by photographer Sam Jones. The movie, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, captures two important episodes for the band -- Tweedy's stormy relationship with multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett (whom Wilco eventually fires), and a mind-bending bit of music business bumbling in which Warner Bros. imprint Reprise Records drops the band in disgust over the record, then ultimately picks them up again through another subsidiary (Nonesuch Records), thus effectively paying for Foxtrot twice.
The film ignited in the press a kind of melodramatic interest in the band's -- and especially Tweedy's -- personal life: his temper, his drug problems, etc. Writers these days often tend to talk about the front man's psyche before they ever get to his music, either abusing him for being an asshole or praising his tortured genius.
John Stirratt, the only other original Wilco member, says the film was a mixed blessing. "It was just a really strange situation," he says. "It was completely staged. A film crew in a loft. Glenn's first week in the band. [Jones] was around just enough to catch us being dropped. The band actually really did gain a lot of fans from that, but there was a lot to live down with that experience."
Wilco only further polarized fans and critics with their 2004 release, A Ghost Is Born, an album of well-structured pop rock tunes that intermittently veers into layers of noise. "Less Than You Think," which Tweedy called "the track that everyone will hate," featured three minutes of a sweet ballad followed by nine minutes of band members simultaneously playing abstract sounds on synthesizer installations.
On Sky Blue Sky, however, the band eschewed effects and overdubs for the organic sound of the well-oiled ensemble -- which now includes multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone and avant-garde jazz guitar master Nels Cline. The album, released last May, was recorded straight to tape in the band's Chicago loft -- often on the first take -- with a more collaborative approach to the writing and the construction of the songs. It has a decidedly mellower sound than perhaps any previous record. A light-hearted song called "I Hate It Here" flirts with Beatles-esque hooks. "Side With the Seeds" walks a razor's edge between ballad and jagged rocker. The album's best track, "Impossible Germany," burns slowly at first, then explodes into a wonderfully frenetic, minutes-long guitar solo by Cline before all three guitarists come together on harmonized lines that recall the Allman Brothers or Blue Oyster Cult.
Tweedy -- the press is sometimes pleased, sometimes disappointed to report -- seems both clean and happy. His lyrics are decidedly more straightforward this time, bespeaking a kind of tentative truce with the world. All of which has resulted in a new accusation from critics: Wilco's gone soft. More specifically, the album's music has been dubbed "dad rock" by Pitchfork and PlayLouder.
"I guess several of us are dads now, so it makes it a little easier to swallow," says Stirratt. "[But] frankly, it makes me bristle a little bit -- that there's something implied, that it's safe music. I think we've taken as many chances over the years as anyone has.
"It's impossible not to get tags like that when you're around for 12, 13 years," Stirratt continues. "But I think we're better live, we have as much energy as we ever had in our 20s. We're all in better shape. We're all better than we were when we were younger, as open-minded as we've ever been. I feel that the band is just as vital as [ever]."
Stirratt says Wilco has already started working toward its next record, with the same lineup and the same commitment to pushing great sounds out of great players (rather than out of computer sound cards). Perhaps, by the time that record is released, "Wilco" won't be the name of a soap opera or a whipping boy or a demi-god but rather the name of a really good rock band.
Not likely, though.
Wilco and Fleet Foxes at the INB Performing Arts Center on Thursday, Aug. 21 at 8 pm. Price: $29. Call 325-seat or visit Ticketswest.com. Tune in next week for a preview of the equally rad Fleet Foxes.