Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Check ... one ... two ...

Unless Aunty Kate pulls a rabbit out of her hat in a couple of weeks time, it is highly unlikely that I will like any song released in 2011 more than these two songs: "Banana Ripple", by Junior Boys, and "One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)", by Wilco.

Both are long songs. "Banana Ripple" tops the nine-minute mark while the Wilco maxes out at 12 minutes. Neither outstay their welcome, and neither would benefit from being either shorter or longer. They are what they are.

The Junior Boys track is surprising for them, in that it more or less sheds the faint air of melancholy that hovers over most of their songs, for what might easily be mistaken for a lost New Order dancefloor anthem. Sitting, as it does, at the end of what is quite a weighty album (and also unquestionably one of the year's best), it also acts as something of a palate cleanser. It leavens their customary electronics with just the slightest trace of (stylishly fonky) guitar, and is possibly one of the few songs brave enough to foreground the click track. Jeremy Greenspan starts the falsetto revival. People have given it the remix treatment (which it probably lends it to more than most JBs tracks), but, as is often the case, there is no improving on the original.

By probable coincidence, "One Sunday Morning", similarly, is one of Wilco's lightest songs. Which is not to say it's a confection. Far from it. This is a pop song, pure and simple, that bears real emotional weight on its featherlike wings. There are a small number of 12-minute songs that can sustain the length. "Marquee Moon" is one of them, and Wilco have nodded towards Television several times previously. (Here, they don't.) If there is a reference point for the musical palette employed (an exquisite acoustic-guitar figure, embellished with piano flourishes, and other tonal stuff floating by underneath), it might be "Five Leaves Left"-era Nick Drake. It drifts, that's what it does. Damn near perfectly.

Wilco's recent critics (of which there are dispiritingly many) seem to have a problem with a band that has so much indie/avant rock talent not chasing the extremes. But what Wilco are really doing, I think, is even braver, and rarer: rather than seeing how far out they can go (which Tweedy has, arguably, already proved), they are seeing how far they can go the other way: specifically, what are the limits of restraint. It is instructive to listen closely to their last three albums, watching out for how little everyone is doing, and what they are, or are not, doing with it. (Similar notions might have been afoot on Yo La Tengo's "And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out", another album that works brilliantly within its own terms, and which was also somewhat misunderstood on release.) "One Sunday Morning" is where the Wilco strategy proves itself.

Both YouTubes will, of necessity, cripple your monthly downloads. But here they are anyway: