It’s a testament to Wilco greatness that most of the band members are active members of other side projects, yet the band’s output has not suffered. The list of side projects is long: Frontman Jeff Tweedy and drummer Glenn Kotche are members of Loose Fur; Tweedy tours as a solo act; Kotche is a member of On Fillmore (as well as other projects); guitarist Nils Cline has a long history with numerous bands that have never officially disbanded; and bassist John Stirratt and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone have their own group, the Autumn Defense. Indeed, while many bands view such side projects as the musical equivalent of adultery, Wilco seems to thrive when its member are free to explore their musical whimsies.
Of these numerous side projects, it’s the Autumn Defense whose life comes closest to approximating that of a full-time band. While Loose Fur’s last album, Born Again in the USA, is damn good, it’s wildly different from its nearly intolerable predecessor, suggesting that Tweedy, Kotche, and fellow musician-with-avant-garde-tendencies Jim O’Rourke see the group more as a venue to explore experimental urges than a band in any traditional sense of the word. By contrast, the Autumn Defense have what can be described as a sound. While their influences are vast, they can all be aptly called “light.” If sunshine could be bottled and sold, the label would have Stirratt’s and Sansone’s innocent grins on it.
And maybe it’s because the Autumn Defense have become synonymous with a sound that they’ve decided to build upon it on their latest release, the eponymous The Autumn Defense. Then again, it might just be that Stirratt and Sansone are growing as musicians, after now being in a band with such musical encyclopedias as Kline and Kotche. Whatever the impetus, The Autumn Defense sees the duo incorporating more colors into their musical palette, from the ornate strings of “Estate Remains” and “Criminal” to the blue-eyed soul of “Feel You Now” and the jazz balladry of “Where You Are”. The sound is still thoroughly Stirratt and Sansone; breezy melodies are everywhere, as well as winsome lyrics about life and love. It’s just that now the Autumn Defense are sounding more like the All Music Guide to Popular Music rather than just a folk duo in the vein of Simon and Garfunkel.
To be sure, that’s a delicate line to walk—to explore numerous styles and influences while creating a coherent and engaging album—but the Autumn Defense pulls it off. In addition to the unmistakable melodies and lyrics, the solid craftsmanship holds this album together. Stirratt and Sansone take no shortcuts here; all of the delicate and subtle layers of music are played by real musicians. Not even the strings are synthesized, even though it would be tempting for Sansone, who knows his way around the keys, to cut corners. For instance, “Spend Your Life” sounds, upon first listen, like a simple ballad built around a rolling piano part, but repeated listens reveal barely audible pedal steel and non-intrusive strings. Though the additional layers of instrumentation do little to augment the song, it’s a testament to the Autumn Defense’s attention to detail that the parts are in the mix.
Indeed, subtlety is the overriding quality on this album, from the soft vocals to the understated percussion to the restrained guitar solos. “We Would Never Die”, for example, ends with a long guitar solo that redefines jam music simply because it’s entire purpose is not to call attention to itself. Nowhere, however, is the subtle craftsmanship of the album more beautifully executed than on “City Bells”, a classic ‘60s bossa nova love song replete with sprinkling piano runs, a glissading bass line, and classical guitar. This might the most beautiful song the Autumn Defense have ever written—or Wilco or any of the side projects of its members, for that matter. Take the sexiness of Wilco “How to Fight Loneliness”, remove the depressed resignation, add some romance, throw in some Antonio Carlos Jobim, and you’ve got one beautiful damn tune.
Vocally, Stirratt and Sansone hold their own, though neither possesses what would be termed a God-given talent for singing. Both musicians take turns singing on the album, and both have a limited range. Imagine Peter Brady before his voice cracked on that infamous episode of The Brady Bunch—all innocence and sunshine and naiveté—and you get the idea. This is of little concern, however, as both Stirratt and Sansone are skilled enough as musicians to write songs around their vocal capabilities—or, as it is, limitations. Like Wayne Coyne, however, the Autumn Defense’s voices are all the more endearing for being more heartfelt than powerful, and when you add the vocals to the impeccable music, you have no reason at all to complain.
In the final estimation, The Autumn Defense is not for everyone, especially Wilco fans who crave the alt-country of their early days or the Kraut-rock experimentalism of recent releases. Even those with a broad knowledge and appreciation of music might not immediately like what they hear, for this is an album that is so breezy it could easily aggravate those with edgier preferences. On the whole, however, The Autumn Defense is an impressive set of songs. After all, it’s not the average rock ‘n’ roll musician who can arrange strings and woodwinds, and actually pull it off. Then again, the Autumn Defense isn’t your average side project, a mere distraction from the pressures of fame or a creative safe haven to indulge frivolous experimental urges. They are, to the contrary, a bona-fide band, despite having to recruit additional musicians to flesh out their sound; big ideas require big instrumentation, right? With one foot in Gilberto and the other in America, the Autumn Defense overwhelm with their charm and subtlety.