Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Top Five Wilco Firings

Wilco's in the midst of a two-night stay at the 9:30 Club (last night and tonight), and what better time to compile a list of the Top Five Wilco Firings, ceremonious or otherwise.

5. Jim O' Rourke - Neither G.L. nor I really believed Mr. Jim "I Ruin Records" O' Rourke was really part of Wilco (nor do we believe he ruins records), thus he gets placed at #5. Yet O' Rourke's tenure with Wilco has a distinct phoenix element to it, rising seemingly out of nowhere to mix the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot tapes into the most glorious mess the band ever put onto record, produce the follow-up A Ghost is Born, and throw together two comically uneven side project records with Jeff Tweedy and drummer Glenn Kotche under the Loose Fur moniker (those of you owning LF self-titled debut will perhaps agree that both "Racoonists" and "Scrotales" were better band names). His indie celebrity factor -- having been a Sonic Youth member for five years before leaving in 2005 to pursue "film"making -- gets him on the list over the relatively anonymous Brian Henneman and Bob Egan. No offense, guys.

4. Max Johnston - the oft-forgotten roots-oriented multi-instrumentalist of the band's early, greenhorne years, his departure proved ironic, as he left the band in 1996 because he sensed Jay Bennett (see below) was taking control of the coveted "Wilco, multi-instrumentalist" role, which, by my count, has been held by no fewer than five different people in the past decade. Johnston's departure from the band was symbolic of the group's direction; as an adroit banjo and dobro player, he saw little room for him during Wilco's mellotron-infused days down the road. Johnston -- the brother of singer-songwriter Michelle Shocked -- was also a member of Uncle Tupelo, and has gone on to play with sister Shocked, Steve Forbert ("Romeo's Tune") and The Gourds, with whom he continues to play and receive the support and affection he deserves.

3. Ken Coomer, along with fellow Uncle Tupelo holdover John Stirrat, joined Jeff Tweedy when he split with Jay Farrar to form Wilco in 1994. Perhaps not so surprisingly, the first couple Wilco albums sounded like Uncle Tupelo 2.0 – solid alt-country and American rock and roll records with some witty lyrics and just enough grit. Coomer’s playing was equally as solid and he and Stirrat continued the formidable partnership they began in Tupelo. What’s noteworthy about Coomer’s departure was not that there was any tabloid-esque falling out, but rather that the end of his tenure coincided with a new direction for Wilco. During Summerteeth, which would prove to be Coomer’s final record with Wilco, the band (or rather, Tweedy and Bennett) were experimenting with various different studio effects and employing overdubs ad nauseam. This led to Coomer and Stirrat alike feeling marginalized as the new production techniques limited their role in the process. Coomer would split with the band in an (allegedly) amicable way and the percussion role would eventually be filled by Glen Kotche. Stirrat, by either sucking it up and swallowing his pride or by selling his soul to Mssr. Tweedy, continues on.

2. Leroy Bach - Another multi-instrumentalist, Bach lasted exactly one album as a full-fledged member of Wilco. That album was Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, meaning he was also extremely well-documented in Sam Jones' full-length promotional video, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. In the movie, he famously claims that everyone in the band is capable of "shaping a musical moment", which becomes painfully funny when we later see Jay Bennett (see below) stumble over himself trying to figure out the intro to "Heavy Metal Drummer". Bach toured with the band through their lean four-piece (and on into their "four piece plus an iBook") period and then left. He toured with Beth Orton a little bit, and apparently he still plays with a funk/fusion outfit in Chicago, but he's flown mainly under the radar.

1. Jay Bennett - The most epic – and best documented – departure from Wilco is, by no surprise, that of Jay Bennett. As those who have seen the documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart will surely remember, things came to a head during the recording of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. From the documentary, Bennett surely comes off looking like the asshole – he’s brash, he’s uncompromising, he’s clearly a bit unstable and lacks a number of social skills. Tweedy, who surely shares a lot of these same qualities, unceremoniously dumps Bennett in the middle of recording YHF and never looks back. It’s sad really, because the partnership of Tweedy and Bennett was always a great one in my opinion; Bennett was the McCartney to Tweedy’s Lennon, providing the Pop whereby Tweedy provided the Pomp. Not to mention, he was a good studio tech and mixer, basically taking Summerteeth on himself. Summerteeth is not only my favorite Wilco album, but also the milestone record in the Wilco catalog, not YHF, as many would have you believe. This record, and Bennett, it must be said, ushered in a new time for Wilco, one that would see the band enjoy its most prosperous and successful period yet.

Credits: GH posts 5, 4, 2; G.L. posts 3, 1

Wilco - "Kingpin" (Live at the Riviera)

Wilco - "Magazine Called Sunset" (Demo)

No comments: