Minus 5 and Wilco: Down With Wilco

Jason Damas

Minus 5 and Wilco

Down With Wilco

Label: Yep Roc
US Release Date: 2003-02-25
UK Release Date: 2003-02-24

Well, this is interesting.

Scott McCaughey of the Minus 5 (and previously the Young Fresh Fellows) likes working with other people, particularly people from bands that are more successful than his own. Peter Buck, the R.E.M. guitarist most famous for destroying crockery on an international flight, is the only other steady member of the Minus 5, and over the years the lineup has been filled out with members of the Posies and other Northwestern alt-pop-whatever bands. Now it's time to work with Wilco!

Down With Wilco seems like an attempt to build off the concept of the last Minus 5 album, Let the War Against Music Begin, which was an ambitious attempt to recreate the "Vs." type albums of the 1950s. It was a two-disc effort featuring one Minus 5 disc and one disc of new material from McCaughey's old project, the Young Fresh Fellows, who don't sound all that different apart from a sensibility that is more rock 'n' roll and less studio construct. The album succeeded in large part because of its concept. The material itself was merely "okay" Beach Boys revisionism all puked up in a sprawling platter, but McCaughey's assembly couldn't help but make it feel fun and delightfully silly, which are characteristics that have always marked the best of McCaughey's projects.

Down With Wilco, though, is McCaughey's attempt to make a real "Vs." album, where McCaughey uses Wilco as his studio musicians for a set of fairly standard Minus 5 material. Sure, Wilco main man Jeff Tweedy had some input here through a couple of co-writes and a few vocal turns (Tweedy sings all of one song and a verse on another), but this is still McCaughey's show. And anyone looking for the new, post-record-label-hell, post-modern Wilco will find that they've largely pushed that aspect of their personality to the background. The Yankee Hotel Foxtrot part of Wilco's personality is really only evidenced in the occasional spot where the tapes are filled to the brim with background noise -- most audible on the opener, "The Days of Wine and Booze", which sounds like it was recorded with room mics, outside, in the wind. Kind of like YHF. Beyond that, though, this is more the lush pop Wilco that we saw a few years back on the excellent, overlooked Summerteeth, particularly on the more sublime, breezy numbers that made up the bulk of the middle of that disc. That makes sense, however, since Summerteeth was one of the most effective homages to the Beach Boys ever recorded-and it seemed shocking at the time, since we'd figured Wilco were a - gasp -- country band! But Tweedy and McCaughey construct the same types of sonic collages this time -- minute details all add up to make a tightly wound, yet at least superficially, relaxed record. There are lots of little details, like Moroccan horns, mellotrons, tambourines, sleighbells, and marimbas, that signify this record as a piece with both Summerteeth and Let the War Against Music Begin.

But what's the catch? One of the best, most innovative rock bands on the planet teams up with an act who (as Minus 5 and the Young Fresh Fellows) has set the underground on fire for nearly 20 years, and what's the end result? Well, unfortunately it's an album that's almost too understated for its own good. McCaughey's songs are not particularly revelatory, with two notable exceptions (the fantastic, rollicking -- and notably, country-ish -- "Where Will You Go?", a song more gripping than anything on the last M5 album, and the tongue-in-cheek "Retrieval of You" where McCaughey begs to be called "DJ Mini-mart" because that's where he works), and Tweedy's "The Family Gardener" sounds like it was the B-side to "A Shot in the Arm". Tweedy's mostly token contributions seem like an attempt to help the fading McCaughey garner some press . . . oops, it worked.

Then again, the Minus 5 have operated on a conceptual plain for years -- it's just that the concept has been to create manicured, post-modern Beach Boys homages where the mixes are stuffed with instrumentation. Wilco aren't that different -- Tweedy stuffs his mixes with instrumentation, and on Summerteeth he showed that the breezier side of the Beach Boys were certainly an influence. Put the two in a room and Down With Wilco is what comes out, and hey, that's not so bad. It's certainly a pleasant, pretty (and sometimes) catchy record, one that merges brush strokes of roots rock with art pop. The only real challenge is getting beyond your own expectations, and then it's easy to realize that this is really a charming little record.





The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".


Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".


Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.