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.