You can generally rely on a few albums each year that come out in the winter months to try and compliment the cold and falling leaves with appropriately autumnal singer-songwriter fare. Albums whose pop isn’t as much sunny as it is a little chilly; they’re usually just as lightweight as their summer counterparts, but they’re more about falling out of love as opposed to falling into it. Wilco’s John Stirratt offers the Autumn Defenses’ second disc, Circles, to go with the shorter days and scarves. It’s a success—all acoustic guitars, vintage keyboards, and delicate vocals. It’s richly produced, if mostly un-surprising, and while it won’t be as embarrassing in twenty years as those Dan Fogelberg albums in your parent’s collection, chances are you won’t be winning any cred points with your future offspring by throwing this one on.
Beginning with Uncle Tupelo’s Anodyne, Stirratt has developed quite nicely into a new decade’s Mike Mills to Wilco’s R.E.M. He’s their unfair advantage over other pop bands; a sideman with solid arranging chops content to service the greater good of a band that wouldn’t be the same without him. He doesn’t need a star turn to stand out, and that’s not the point of the Autumn Defense, I know. As a bandleader he doesn’t really command attention; if he did it would probably only have proven to be distracting to the album’s overall feel. It’s more about creating a seamless autumn vibe, but the vibe ends up feeling too restrictive; its like nothing can move freely underneath it.
Comparisons to a host of late ‘60s and ‘70s country, and even some adult-contemporary “rockers”, can be made pretty easily and would all fit fairly well. To his credit, Stirratt avoids the temptation to try on any kind of twang (notably present on A.M.‘s Stirratt-penned “It’s Just That Simple”), making the album feel more like his heartfelt take on the genre than any deliberate aping of a style. It’s California country rock, recorded ironically in Nashville, New York, and Chicago, and it wins and loses for the same reasons that a lot of California country rock does. The harmonies are rich and the arrangements are full and a handful of songs are instantly familiar even if only one or two will really stay with you. It’s quite light, though, lacking in any kind of grit or teeth. Still, it’s more interesting than, say, the Thorns (who are themselves better than hundreds of other imitators) and their take on sun-kissed harmonies and laidback vibes. Stirratt and collaborator Pat Sansone are remarkably sturdy players, giving them an instant advantage over less talented contemporaries. Ultimately, if Circles is a bit thin, at least the album doesn’t really pretend at any kind of depth and it never really feels overblown.
For some reason, “Tuesday Morning”, with its quiet perception, has me thinking about Elliot Smith: “Thought I saw you in the corner of my eye / Moving quickly with the people that were passing by / Pausing on the sidewalk to strike a pose / Hiding things everybody already knows”. “Why I’m Like This” could probably fit in fine on my copy of The Carpenter’s Greatest Hits, which I mean in a nice way but which you can take according to taste. “Circles”, the album’s closer, is a chord change away from “Mind Games”, and while it’s a mighty fine reference point, it seems odd that they left it in. Stirratt’s voice is at times reminiscent of Scott McCaughey’s on the Minus Fives’ Down With Wilco, though I like Stirratt’s better if only because it doesn’t seem as embarrassed at coming off as sincere. Really, Circles feels like nothing if not sincere, and while it wears thin and may not be for every occasion, it feels better than cheap stabs at detachedness and humor.
To a fault, the album errs a bit too far on the side of preciousness. It could have used a few more ragged moments, a few more lumps or bruises to give it some character. Besides that, I’m not really sure how much song there is in these songs. It’s really no fun criticizing Stirratt and Sansone, though, so I’ll leave it at that. The album is warm and heartfelt and that comes across. While that’s far from being everything, depending on your mood, sometimes that’s enough.
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