Wilco Unveil New Sound Onstage And On Record

Summer Teeth, due March 9, features pop harmonies, keyboards and dark lyrics.

SAN FRANCISCO — Jeff Tweedy wasn’t kidding
when he said last year that Wilco’s next album would
contain “zero country references.”

Summer Teeth, scheduled to be released March 9,
finds the Chicago quintet long associated with the
alt-country movement dropping the dobros and steel guitars
that marked its first two albums. Instead, the band is using
piano, organ and other keyboards to accent an album of
dark pop songs.

The songs on Summer Teeth, Wilco’s third album,
balance some weighty lyrical content with pop harmonies
and a healthy dose of humor and sarcasm. Birds twitter on
the title track, and an operatic voice soars underneath the
ending of “Candyfloss,” a playful pop song that features
carousel-like keyboard sounds. A jaunty piano kicks off
“Shot in the Arm,” giving way to swarming feedback and a
chorus in which Tweedy sings, “What you once were/ Isn’t
what you want to be anymore.”

Lyrically, Wilco have entered dense territory far beyond the
stoner romance of HREF="http://media.addict.com/atn-bin/get-music/Wilco/I_Must_Be_High.ram">“I
Must Be High”
(RealAudio excerpt) and the pop
breeziness of “Box Full of Letters,” both from their debut
album, A.M. (1995).

On “Via Chicago,” Tweedy sings, “Dreamed about killing
you again last night/ And it felt all right to me/ Dying on the
banks of Embarcadero skies/ I sat and watched you bleed.”
The girl he sings about in “She’s a Jar” is “A pretty wall
with feelings hid/ You know she begs me not to hit her.”

Wilco trotted out four songs from the new album
Wednesday at the Fillmore Auditorium here (where they
also played on New Year’s Eve). And they trotted out a
lineup that found keyboardist Leroy Bach taking the place
of jack-of-all-strings Max Johnston, who left Wilco to join
country traditionalists Freakwater. The rest of the band –
singer/guitarist Tweedy, multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett,
bassist John Stirratt and drummer Ken Coomer — remained
intact.

Tweedy apologized for the performance of one of the new
tunes, “I’m Always in Love,” one of Summer
Teeth
‘s most accessible tracks. Tweedy said the band
was playing it live for the first time. “That’s as well as we
can play it right now,” the scruffy-looking singer said at
song’s end. “Come back in six months and it’ll sound a lot
better.”

(Wilco aren’t currently on tour; Tweedy begins a West
Coast excursion with the supergroup Golden Smog on Jan.
16 in Seattle.)

Tweedy’s humility notwithstanding, “I’m Always in Love”
and other new songs, including the brooding “Via Chicago,”
resonated through the sold-out Fillmore as comfortably as
did such Wilco standbys as HREF="http://media.addict.com/atn-bin/get-music/Wilco/Casino_Queen.ram">“Casino
Queen”
(RealAudio excerpt) and a punked-up
“Passenger Side.”

The set also included “New Madrid,” a chestnut
from Tweedy’s old band, the pioneering alt-country outfit
Uncle Tupelo, and four songs from Mermaid
Avenue,
the band’s recent collaboration with British
singer/songwriter Billy Bragg.

Perhaps Wilco just wanted to cover all the bases. “We don’t
[know] what people want to hear these days,” Tweedy told
the audience. “We haven’t played much in the last year, so
outside of ‘Passenger Side,’ we don’t know what you want
to hear.”

Whether or not they want to hear it, Wilco fans will get
plenty of pop come March 9 with the release of
Summer Teeth. “Nothing’severgonnastandinmyway
(again),” “How to Fight Loneliness” and the title track
feature “ooh” and “aah” harmonies that evoke the heyday of
’60s pop-rockers the Beach Boys.

But, as Beach Boys fans know, pop doesn’t always mean
sunny days and star-filled nights. “How to Fight Loneliness”
is a sarcastic tune in which Tweedy advises laughing at
every joke and smiling all the time. Elsewhere on the album,
Wilco use piano to anchor a lullaby called “My Darling”; the
same instrument drives the mournful “We’re Just Friends.”

This is the same dark pop territory Wilco began exploring
on their two-disc set Being There (1996). Then, it
was part of their sound; now, it seems it is their
sound.