Kicking Television – Wilco
Nonesuch Records 79903-2
If Jeff Tweedy has succeeded at one thing over the past two years, it's in shedding Wilco’s alt.country tag. Since the release of 2004’s A Ghost is Born, Wilco has shifted its focus from subtle, song-oriented introspection to arena-sized guitar rock, emerging as one of rock-and-roll’s best stage shows along the way. Given that Tweedy has always been pegged as Paul McCartney to former Uncle Tupelo partner Jay Farrar’s John Lennon, the transformation makes sense and, in reality, was always somewhat inevitable. With that in mind, it’s also fitting that Kicking Television, Wilco’s first official live document, is an album packed with bona fide anthems, which, in general, favor big, feedback heavy sounds over tight, intricate performances.
Tweedy declares his mission a few notes into 1996’s “Misunderstood,” Kicking Television’s first track: “There’s a party there that we oughta go to/Do you still love rock and roll?” It’s a motto Wilco returns to often throughout the two-disc, 36 track set and, most likely, as Tweedy sculpts his band’s future. With the exception of a few stray A Ghost is Born tracks, most of the material on Kicking Television has been rearranged for Wilco 3.0, the expansive, experimental unit Tweedy put together following the major label drama which surrounded Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. After a year of heavy touring, the band sounds air tight, especially the triple guitar attack of Tweedy, Nels Cline and Pat Sansone. Recalling the avant-garde sensibility Jim O’Rourke brought to Wilco during the A Ghost is Born sessions, Sansone also adds an experimental edge to the group’s sound that resonates particularly well with equally groovy keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen. At the end of the day, all of this add up to an increased palette of sound which adds extra weight to Tweedy’s already emotionally layered songs.
Recorded over four nights at Chicago’s Vic Theater — and originally intended as the companion piece for the group’s now scrapped DVD — Kicking Television is first and foremost an accurate documentation of Wilco’s current live show. Drawing from material penned throughout its career, save its Uncle Tupelo-style debut A.M. Wilco also essentially offers its first greatest hits set. For casual fans, Kicking Television features well known numbers ranging from Summer Teeth’s “Via Chicago” to last summer’s live anthem “Spiders (Kidsmoke).”
A treat for purists, Tweedy also tosses in the spare Woody Guthrie cover “One by One” from its Mermaid Avenue sessions with Billy Bragg and leaves off last year’s overplayed hit “I’m A Wheel.” Returning home tried-and-true arena-rockers (this set was recorded just a few months after Wilco’s Madison Square Garden debut on New Year’s), Wilco unfortunately faces its somewhat annoying crowd echo head to head, at times overshadowing the group’s careful communication. Yet, in certain ways, that seems to be the point, as Wilco, a decade into its career, finally embraces its inner rock-star demons and enjoys its biggest road success to date.
While Wilco will never be a true jamband, as Kicking Television unfolds, one can see the crossover appeal. Expansive tracks like “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” push pass the eleven minute mark, while shorter fair like “Company in My Back” dissolve into attractive psychedelic waters. Similarly, “I am Trying to Break Your Heart” includes a quick, free noise keyboard breakdown courtesy of Jorgensen. Buffing up the A Ghost is Born afterthought “The Late Greats” with a new guitar heavy arrangement, Tweedy places his axe at the forefront of Wilco’s sound allowing the group to rock-out each of its numbers for a few extra minutes (“Handshake Drugs” works particularly well in this context). In an era where even longtime jamband kids seem disillusioned with purebred jam, these live-tweaks prove that there is a comfortable balance between indie and improvisation. It also reminds listeners that its possible to apply jam-nation’s mission — to create a unique live show on a nightly basis — to a variety of styles and sounds.
As expected, Wilco sounds best on Tweedy's tightest compositions. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s material translates particularly well, whether it’s the stadium ready “Heavy Metal Drummer," the distorted bliss of “Ashes of American Flags’” or the horn-enhanced “I’m the Man Who Loves You.” It’s this punk energy that will keep Wilco from ever truly embracing the jamband scene it so often flirts with, but which, on the flipside, will enviably inherit an element of Wilco’s pogo-style energy as the scene ages past Phish and the Grateful Dead.
In the end, perhaps Kicking Television’s biggest problem is that it stands alone in a vacuum, the only officially sanctioned live set in the group’s canon. While Wilco proves its might at several points throughout both discs, it doesn’t always succeed in perfecting its craft. In fact, “Jesus, Etc.,” perhaps Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s most emotionally laced tale, is one of the album’s few disappointments. Once known for its subtle strings, the popular Yankee Hotel Foxtrot track is overwhelmed by crowd noise and a chorus of cheering fans, bloating the song into a latter-day “Maybe I’m Amazed.” But, then again, with "Heavy Metal Drummer," Tweedy seems to have predicted his rock-star backlash long before his newly found fame: “I miss the innocence I’ve known/Playing KISS covers, beautiful and stoned.”