Sometimes how you feel about an album comes down to setting.
I listened to Wilco's Schmilco about 10 times (over the course of a week or two) before I found the perfect place to listen: Through headphones, on a cold, rainy day, the first of autumn, half asleep, after a long day of mind-numbing meetings.
These songs are lullabies.
I had enjoyed them during my commutes, during my walks around the park, but not nearly as much as I did while laying in my bed and fighting off sleep.
The album starts with “Normal American Kids,” a simple tune featuring just one acoustic guitar, Jeff Tweedy's vocals, and some low-key noodling by, presumably, Nels Cline. The second track, “If I Ever Was a Child” is reminiscent of Wilco's outstanding 1999 release, Summerteeth. But even this is a softer, more contemplative Wilco.
As is always the case with Wilco, the production is gorgeous and much of the orchestration is often unexpected. Bits of organ float in and out of songs, dancing alongside pedal steel guitars, and sprinklings of backing vocals—never in your face, just enough.
Now I have to admit some bias that fans of Wilco will probably not find surprising: I don't think anything Wilco releases will ever be as great as their magnum opus, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. So, whenever they come out with a new album, that silly part of my brain where knee-jerk reactions comes from tends to be forever comparing, forever judging. The same thing always happens: I listen once, and feel nothing. I listen again, and feel disgusted, my dumb mind screaming, “How dare this not be Yankee Hotel Foxtrot!”
Then I keep listening and I fall in love.
“Common Sense” is probably the hardest track on Schmilco to wrap your head around. It sounds kind of like Sonic Youth playing acoustic guitars and trying to make, like, a Tom Waits album full of Halloween-themed songs. Or something. Or maybe it just sounds like Jeff Tweedy in a really strange mood. It's not melodic at all, but in the end, at the very least, it's an interesting track.
Then “Common Sense” gives way to the fifth track, “Nope,” which features a ridiculously infectious lead guitar riff that, of course, this being Wilco, is barely audible. The necessity of straining a bit to listen makes the riff that much sweeter.
“Quarters” might be the best track on the album. But ask me again in a week and I'll probably have a different answer. The whole thing is worth listening to on repeat.
Schmilco is, ultimately, an outstanding release.
Now it's time for a nap.