SURPRISE!  Wilco dropped a new album FO’FREE on Thursday night.  And, at the time of this writing, it’s still available (FO’FREE) on their website, so go get some, because it’s great.

I’ve always found Wilco to be a somewhat puzzling band, in the sense that their influences and subsequent sound is across the board.  They’re alt-country one minute, psychedelic rock the next, with a jam band interlude in between.  Not to mention that sometimes Wilco is best with a minimal sound (think “Radio Cure” off of the seminal Yankee Hotel Foxtrot).  This album, titled Star Wars, presumably for it’s 70s throwback sound, is my favorite kind of Wilco — funky and rocked out, with some well-executed slower tracks that really show off their versatility and Jeff Tweedy‘s charmingly sad-sack vocals.

The first three tracks shoot out of the gate with a funky ferocity that kick things off in a slow build that leads into the raucous, all-out fuzzy rock of the third track, “Random Name Generator”.  Nels Cline is perhaps one of the most criminally underrated guitarists in the rock music canon, and he’s absolutely ridiculous here.  Opening track “EKG” is a quick instrumental blast, while “More” sounds like a cool, psychedelic Beatles jam.  Then “Random Name Generator” hits and it’s flaw-free.  The guitar is perfectly hooky with a nasty solo in the middle, the drums are spacey, and Tweedy sounds tough and, dare I say, a little punk.  It’s perfect, and a great, great start.

After that, things go in a lot of different musical directions while still somehow sounding excellent and well-done.  “The Joke Explained” starts off a little slower and vaguely Southwestern-sounding in nature, but Cline is right back with funky guitar overlays and it rolls along at an excellent pace.  Things get switched up for “You Satellite”, which is a 5-minute slow-burner that starts off spacey and quiet and grows into a cacophony of interweaving guitar and ambient noises that never quite seem to end.  I like the way the track fades, as if Cline is just going to play a really glorious solo forever and ever.

“Pickled Ginger” is insane and I’m not sure how to describe it, but it’s definitely in the running for MVP song of the album.  It starts out with just Tweedy, some anger, a simple harmony, and a distorted guitar, but the drums kick in about halfway through and it takes off on a speedy, grungy journey with the most hilariously abrupt ending that I actually double-checked that my download file wasn’t corrupted.

The back half of the album slows things down a bit in comparison to the front, but it’s quality.  “Taste the Ceiling” is a slow, country-tinged track, and, while “Where Do I Begin” starts off seemingly that way, it unleashes at the end.  Other songs, like “Cold Slope” and “Magnetized” are slower, with occasional moments of ferociousness.  And then, just to mix things up even further, they throw in the bluesy, swagger-filled “King of You” to spice things up even further.

I can unquestionably go ahead and say that Nels Cline is the undisputed champ of this album.  He’s all over things in a way he hasn’t quite been on a Wilco album in some time, and his playing is absolutely top-notch and versatile, from the fuzzy 70s-style playing on “Random Name Generator” to the ragey “Pickled Ginger” to the spacey and virtuosic “You Satellite”.

But Cline isn’t the only player worth his salt!  The whole band seem to be functioning at an incredibly high musical level and, for a surprise album, Star Wars is really something.  It’s fast, it’s fun, and it’s the perfect album to take this summer into fall.  Don’t mistake surprise for throwaway — this is incredibly good.

Overall Score
95 %

Wilco drops a surprise album worthy of the hype.

Instrumentals 98%
Vocals 93%

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Self-deprecating fundraising lackey, avocado connoisseur, pop culture aficionado, latte-drinking liberal elitist.

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