The bulk of the songs on this lovingly recorded iTunes Session come from Wilco’s 2011 release, The Whole Love, and it also features classic jams such as “Passenger Side” (from A.M.) and “War on War” (from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot). The live performances hew close to the originals but offer a few Easter eggs. One of many pleasant surprises is a mellow cover of Nick Lowe’s power pop classic “Cruel to Be Kind” featuring the beloved singer/songwriter himself.
An eight-song iTunes Session EP hardly seems conducive to taking in the full scope of a band’s career, especially when the tracklist primarily comprises songs from the most recent album. But we’ve got a few months’ perspective on The Whole Love now*,* and this new release unearths a track from Wilco’s 1995 debut, A.M., which suggests they’re getting back to the business of being a pop band. They aren’t curtailing their experimental urges so much as they’re putting more emphasis on tight songs they’d want to play and you’d want to hear in a semi-live setting. There is, in other words, a retrospective undercurrent to iTunes Session, which, instead of including the 10-minute krautrock jams and noise-rock punctuations of their early-2000s heyday, looks to the song-oriented period just before and just after.
Rethinking what it means to be Wilco has always been a big part of being Wilco, so the inclusion of the 17-year-old “Passenger Side” suggests a band seriously reassessing its past and drawing strong connections between the Wilco of 1995, the Wilco of 2002, and the Wilco of 2012. The band has exhibited an enduring propensity for noisy undercurrents, concise vocal hooks, and unexpected nods to pop history, all of which are animated by Tweedy’s lyrics, which range from invigorated nonsense (“I Might”) to semi-tragic lucidity (“Passenger Side”). Toward that end, iTunes Session emphasizes the immediate over the arty, omitting the rambling Whole Love opener “Art of Almost” in favor of that album’s catchiest tracks and choosing the direly hooky “War on War” instead of some of the strident tracks from their catalog.
For those of us who prefer Wilco’s pop songs over their avant-garde numbers, this is a strong, short set, emphasizing buoyant momentum over digressive din. The tracks don’t sound quite as full in this setting as they did on The Whole Love, but there’s still a lot of charm and dynamism in the way the bass and keyboards trade off the ascending/ descending riff on “I Might”, like kids taking turns on the playground slide. If this version surpasses the studio take, it’s largely due to Tweedy’s exaggerated sighs. Only “Black Moon” suffers in this setting, becoming so lax that it threatens to dissipate altogether. It’s clear the band is less interested in that sort of high-concept noodling than they are in simply jamming.
In that regard, Wilco have hijacked the iTunes Session and turned it into a document of the Whole Love tour. These are, ostensibly, crowd favorites, tightened and refined in front of big crowds. They even bring out avuncular opening act Nick Lowe for a workmanlike rendering of his 1979 hit “Cruel to Be Kind”, a regular encore over the last few months. It’s a fine song, a bit redundant and not quite as relevant to the band as their B-side cover of Lowe’s “I Love My Label”, but you can hear how much fun Wilco (or “Wilc-Lowe,” as Tweedy introduced the band at a recent show in Chicago) are having just singing those doo-doo-doo’s.
Lowe is, in fact, an intriguing forebear for Wilco, a man who transformed himself seemingly effortlessly from a post-punk smartass into a genial country crooner. More recently, he’s settled into a gentle nostalgia that lends his recent albums– specifically At My Age and That Old Magic– a wistful gravity that pushes against any notion of granddad rock. Similarly, Tweedy seems intent on forging a lengthy career with just as many twists and turns, dark corners, and bright avenues. Which is where this new version of “Passenger Side” comes in: Just as Lowe’s country material has proven every bit as sturdy as his Stiff Records output, Wilco are pointing to some hidden gems in their own catalog, rehabbing forgotten tunes to prove that the band hasn’t gotten better or worse, just different. That old song, so straightforward and unassuming, settles in remarkably well among their more recent, more celebrated material, so how long till dBpm releases a deluxe reissue of A.M.?