Aging Young Fresh Fellow Scott McCaughey seems to be a guy with a lot of friends, and sometimes the lucky bastard gets to make records with them. Down With Wilco is the fourth or fifth album by McCaughey’s “other band” the Minus 5, depending on whether you count October 2000′s almost-live-in-the-studio In Rock, which was an edition of 1,000 sold only at the group’s sporadic shows. Let’s agree that In Rock does count, so therefore this is their fifth.
While you (or someone like you) could make a case that every Minus 5 album is different (which explains each release’s unique title and cover art), it is immediately apparent that this one is different in a different way. Certainly much of the credit lies with Wilco, who are probably the best band in the universe right now (R.E.M. gets ruled out due to personal bias, Guided By Voices because frankly one becomes confused at times, and NRBQ are disqualified by the fact that they are not of this universe). Attacking their first album project since the departure of multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett (Down With Wilco was recorded in fall 2001), Wilco members Jeff Tweedy, John Stirratt, Leroy Bach and Glenn Kotche demonstrate no dearth of inspiration or ability, wielding an army of marimbas, guitars, keyboards, drums, cranky laptops, a baritone sax, and all manner of percussive implements. And wielding them as if their lives depended upon it, or perhaps, as if they had nothing to lose.
Does this mean the Minus 5 has forsaken its carousel of regulars and foreign outcasts? Hardly. Peter Buck remains ever the partner-in-crime; his feedback and e-bow guitars burrow and blast, his 12-string glimmers. Fellow stalwart Ken Stringfellow’s voice shimmers beneath, atop, and in-between. Sean O’Hagan and Charlie Francis of High Llamas fame reprise roles from 2001′s Let The War Against Music Begin, with O’Hagan’s banjo and bossa nova guitar single-handedly mutating the last verse of the majestic “That’s Not The Way That It’s Done”. Rebecca Gates and Christy McWilson take vocal turns as much-needed feminine foils to the protagonist’s woeful discourses. And Jessy Greene, no stranger to a Wilco session, makes her Minus 5 debut with jarringly beautiful, strangely disembodied violin and cello arrangements.
And what of the supposed leader of the congregation? On Down With Wilco, McCaughey seems to temper his favored excesses — the sleigh bells, bass harmonica and multilayered backing vocals are left to a minimum. His wayward pedal steel creeps in often, stays briefly, leaves unapologetically. As a vocalist, McCaughey’s way with a melody has never been confused with that of Stipe and Yorke, and neither will it in this millennium. Yet he seems to sing here in a disarming, uncontrived mood, less willfully labored, from the perversely buoyant tone of “Retrieval Of You” to the chilling metallic whisper of “What I Don’t Believe”. Tweedy takes over on the gentle noise-scape “The Family Gardener”, and he and Stirratt provide the record’s climax with breathtaking harmonies that close “Dear Employer”.
A more than leisurely look at lyrical content reveals sinister proceedings throughout. The opening “Days Of Wine And Booze” is almost an alcoholic prayer, “Retrieval Of You” a tale of abduction and revenge, and “View From Below” a voyeuristic nightmare. The absurd jauntiness of “The Town That Lost Its Groove Supply” belies McCaughey and Tweedy’s dirty snapshot of a community devoid of spirit and hope. Then there’s the resignation of “Where Will You Go?”, the misanthropic “I’m Not Bitter”, and “Life Left Him There”, which could be describing either the martyrdom of a modern saint, or the heinous murder of some poor sucker. There is enough disintegration and desperation in these songs to keep our nation’s distillers free from fear of recession for the foreseeable future.
McCaughey’s knack for surrounding himself with like-minded, generously talented musicians and friends could be seen as self-serving, or at least self-congratulatory. But that is not heard in the grooves. As with its longtime association with R.E.M., there’s no doubt that working with Wilco opens up new doors for the Minus 5, musical and otherwise. But Down With Wilco fulfills its own promise, its own resume. Is it a masterpiece? Probably. Is it a good time? That all depends on what you like.