February 26, 2009
The Minus 5 | Down With Wilco
The Minus 5
Down With Wilco
2003 | Yep Roc
The Minus 5 is the main songwriting outlet of Scott McCaughey, better known as R.E.M.’s touring guitarist and former leader of the Young Fresh Fellows. Starting in 1993 with a release on They Might Be Giants’ John Flansburgh’s Hello CD of the Month Club, The Minus 5-mostly McCaughey and R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, with an ever-changing lineup around them-have been quietly releasing solid (if kind of repetitive) records for nigh on 20 years, to little or no fanfare. What’s funny, though, is that there’s one record that should have garnered a little more attention, if only for when it was made, and with whom.
Down With Wilco is not the sound of McCaughey and Buck yelling, “Bring me the head of Jeff Tweedy.” Down With Wilco is a declaration of kinship. Think about the title as, “The Minus 5 (are) Down With Wilco.” September 10-14, 2001, Buck and McCaughey convened at SOMA studios in Chicago, IL with the members of Wilco; curiously already pared down to Tweedy, John Stirratt, Glenn Kotche and Leroy Bach (if my rock nerd status serves me, Jay Bennett hadn’t been fired at this point), and former Posie Ken Stringfellow. The album, which was shelved until 2003, is lyrically dark and contains numerous cryptic references to airports and disasters. Musically, Down With Wilco sounds like a poppier version of its’ namesake band’s own problematic 2001 album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which was, itself, shelved for months, forcing both label and lineup changes before its eventual release in April 2002.
Of course, the story of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is the stuff of legend now: little band with modest sales and a small but rabid audience turns in “difficult” record. Label balks, demands singles. Band stands firm. Label drops band, hands over tapes basically free. Band signs to new label (under same parent company), eventually releases its biggest critical and commercial success (and then fails to follow up). The story has been well-documented in Sam Jones’ excellent film I Am Trying To Break Your Heart. What is not well-documented, though, is what happened in the months between Wilco’s dismissal from Reprise and eventual triumph down the hall at Nonesuch.
This is the sound of me speculating: McCaughey and Buck, “down” with Wilco since R.E.M. had toured with the band as its opening act in the late 90’s, invited Tweedy and Co. into the studio to work out their frustration with Reprise and, just maybe, record The Minus 5’s best album to date. On day two of the sessions, the country was brought to its knees by the World Trade Center disaster. Rather than give up playing, though, the bands held tight and kept recording, as a way to block out the shock of what had happened.
What resulted was a sonic and emotional triumph. From the opener, “The Days of Wine and Booze,” Down With Wilco sounds like someone clawing his way out of a living grave. “One day, if I’m old or dead / One day, can’t get out of bed / I hope and pray the night before, we were out of our heads” goes the album’s opening verse, and it seems like the best possible prayer for the songbook that follows: even if we’re not happy, I hope we can always get wasted. “Retrieval of You” follows, the short story of a washed-up rocker (in McCaughey’s own words, “fumbled rekkid star”) who now works at a gas station and fantasizes about forcing his much more successful former bandmates to record a comeback album with him. “I drive by airports three times a day, synchronizing every single move/It’s on the airwaves you’re coming my way, sure I don’t have much to lose,” the mind numbing, sleepy existence of ‘DJ Mini-Mart’ eerily paralleling that of the average Joe going into work at the WTC that fateful morning. Later, “The Town that Lost It’s Groove Supply” describes the “disaster nurse” who “ends up versus the goddamn center of the universe,” which makes me think immediately of the US on September 12: shaking fists at whatever perceived monster nation got in our collective face. Even by the closer, “Dear Employer (The Reason I Quit),” McCaughey and Co. have found freedom, if not closure: “Your escalators…rip the skin and they pull you in/Spit out the boney bits and coffeegrounds.” It sort of feels like the battle was over, but the war was far from won.
Ultimately, Down With Wilco is a bit of a disappointment, if only because neither band have approached its potential since its release. The Minus 5 have never before or since made such an sonically adventurous record-they seem content with sounding like the most expensive bar band in the world on other records. Wilco, on the other hand, have seemed hell-bent on getting more and more “out there,” eschewing their country roots for the sonic dribble of 2004’s A Ghost is Born and the tepid, jazzy folk of 2007’s Sky Blue Sky. Maybe, with a little luck, the two bands will reconvene for a round two.
by Brook Pridemore