Back Shelf Review: The Wilco Book

December 30, 2008

The Wilco Book

the-wilco-bookBy Wilco, Dan Nadel, Peter Buchanan-Smith, Rick Moody and Fred Tomaselli

Published November 2, 2004

PictureBox, Inc.

160 pp.

ISBN 0-971-36703-5

Reviewed January 4, 2009

Originally reviewed at: Helium

If you have to pick a favorite independent music group from the last decade, your safest choice is probably Chicago-based band Wilco. Their music is a laid-back blend of alternative/country/rock, their songs rarely move from catchy to harsh, and their outfit of T-shirts and jeans mixed with horn-rims and outdated suits fits the archetype of hipster. Their albums have achieved enough success to move them into mainstream, and their continually evolving songs keep them planted in the alternative side of music.

Wilco is a band that attracts casual fans and devotees in equal measure, which makes 2004’s “The Wilco Book” a bit of an outlier to their catalog as it’s a book only the latter will find accessible. To casual fans it will likely read as an exercise in pretension, modern art-style photo collages mixed with disordered interviews. More devout Wilco listeners, however, will find buried tidbits on the group’s creative process and a few interesting curiosities.

Described as “a collaborative picture book about music,” “The Wilco Book” is essentially a coffee table scrapbook, following the group as they work in their Chicago studio and backstage at a September 2003 concert. Each member of the band has a chance to talk about what shapes their musical style, their feelings on touring and creating an album, and what – if anything – drives their band’s identity.

The Chicago natives have apparently been spending too much time walking around the Art Institute’s Modern Art wing, as the entire book is filled with esoteric photos and drawings. Early pages are filled with collections of stamp-sized photos, ranging from guitars and graffiti to pumpkins and medical diagrams, as if they were snapped of whatever caught the band’s interest. As an aesthetic choice they are interesting, but anyone who wants to read about music will wonder why they bothered.

On that subject, the band-focused photos are far more interesting. A section on instruments has some terrific war stories associated, identifying what instrument goes to what track, naming the origins and battle scars on certain guitars, and offering some interesting trivia like using different colored guitar picks to code different days as the tour removes the ability to know what day it is. Backstage photos of the group before a show offer a candid view, but could have used better selection: does anyone really need to see a photo of the power supply to the band’s Chicago recording studio, the backstage food spread or rows of empty chairs before the show?

When it comes to written content, this is more consistent but still hit-or-miss. Lead singer Jeff Tweedy has a long essay discussing his theories on rock music, making an album and writing lyrics, and his thoughts are probably the most interesting part of the book. Each of the other musicians chimes in as well with varying success (drummer Glenn Kotche and his hypothetical drumming devices are the most interesting) and a more technical perspective comes from their sound engineers and live show engineers.

Outside of the band, author Rick Moody (“The Black Veil”) takes a scholarly look at Wilco’s evolution, a surprisingly interesting essay that breaks the group down album by album and song by song. Less useful is an interlude of Henry Miller’s essay “The Angel is My Watermark,” which may have some insight into how the group thinks but in the set context just adds to the mood of literary pretentiousness.

And for a third medium, the book also includes an eponymous album. According to the liner notes these are various extracts of after-hours recording sessions, played with an eye towards concept experimentation and bashing out song ideas. Thematically, it matches the book’s modern art style, opening with a dark instrumental piece called “Pure Bug Beauty” that feels like Explosions in the Sky on morphine.

The other tracks of The Wilco Book are a mix of success and throw-away. Few of the songs (with the exception of “The High Heat”) feel like proper Wilco songs, and some (“Doubt”) sound like the band is literally throwing things around the studio. More interesting ones include “Diamond Claw,” which has Wilco’s trademark low-key quasi-country tone, and the loose rambling guitar of “Barnyard Pimp.” It works well if you’re looking for ambient sound in a coffee shop, but don’t play it expecting a proper Wilco record.

In that way, the album is an apt summary of the whole “Wilco Book” project: it will satisfy and even keenly interest some fans, but would need far more editing to appeal to the casual Wilco follower. If you listen to them closely check it out, but if you’re looking for an introduction to the group a better idea is to buy Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and hang around your local coffee shop until a musical conversation inevitably brings them up.