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Wilco gets rough, risky on free new album 'Star Wars'

Wilco gets rough, risky on free new album 'Star Wars'
Wilco surprise-released its new album, "Star Wars," on Thursday. (Wilcoworld.net)

The letters "EKG" don't denote comfort. They're frightening, cold and anxiety-inducing – letters that are best to be avoided. And yet that's how Wilco opens its ninth studio album, with an 85-second instrumental that puts the listener on notice and on edge.

Guitars poke and prod. A bass revs up, and then it roars. The song is disjointed. In one moment, it sounds like city traffic. In another, it coasts around a curve, at least until the rhythm hits some speed bumps and drives the song into a curb. Where "EKG" is heading is never quite clear. Clarity is not what Wilco is after on this album. It's thrilling.

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Thus begins "Star Wars," the album Wilco surprise-released on its website for free Thursday evening. There was no warning, no promotional tease, just 11 songs, a picture of a lovable white house cat and the words "Star Wars," partly in cursive, partly not. It's a cover that feels designed to be familiar – Wilco, after all, is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year – but also to toy with perceptions, to close the book on the band's first two decades and start plotting a new course.

Even for a band without such an extensive back catalog, "Star Wars" is an electric jolt. Leader Jeff Tweedy's husky reassuring voice is obscured among static shocks and a loose approach that feels in danger of running off the rails. Since a once-evolving Wilco lineup solidified about a decade ago with ace drummer Glenn Kotche and L.A.'s jazzy guitar freak Nels Cline, a question has lingered: What would Wilco sound like if the band unhooked the studio shackles and cut loose instead of went for perfection? "Star Wars" is at least one answer to that query.

The album was no doubt inspired by the relatively raw "Sukierae," Tweedy's 2014 work with his son, Spencer. Speaking to The Times in March, Tweedy hinted that a new Wilco would be a bit more coarse.

"There will be some efforts to point at the outer edges a little more fervently," Tweedy said.

The Wilco on “Star Wars” is a long way removed from the one that cut folk-pop pleasantries with Feist ("You and I" in 2009). Oddities abound, be it the knotted high-pitched guitars of “The Joke Explained” or the metallic echoes of “You Satellite,” which abruptly picks up speed and then cuts out.

All of it is welcome. Since "The Whole Love" was released in 2011, Wilco has spent endless time on the road and even engaged in a bit of nostalgia, unleashing a four-CD collection of outtakes and rarities last year. While the band's recent works have been respectable, they've been more reassuring than revelatory. "Wilco will love you, baby," the band proclaimed on 2009's "Wilco (The Album)."

Here, the group doesn't seem so sure. There's a sense of being overwhelmed on "More…" and a yearning for miracles on the heated "Random Name Generator," where studio effects bury a rhythm that sounds like a tangle of jet noises. "I kinda like when I make you cry," sings Tweedy, adding to the dissonance.

It's a darker work than Wilco has primarily become known for in recent years. It's less about music as a comforting agent and more about music as a tool to reflect our tough times. "Why do our disasters creep so slowly into view?" Tweedy sings on "Taste the Ceiling."

"Pickled Ginger" is downright ferocious, sounding as if it were recorded in a gutter, complete with Kotche's drums rattling the walls. "No one tells me how to behave," Tweedy snaps. And later, the tick-tocking "Magnetized" closes the album on an off-balance note. It sort of sounds like orchestral '60s pop, although it stays on high alert as it fades in and out. Is that a church organ the song is built around? Is that a bowed guitar that arrives at moment's end? Even the loving lyrics hint at multiple directions. "I sleep underneath a picture that I keep of you next to me," Tweedy sings.

Nothing ever quite feels certain on "Star Wars," an album in which one of pop-culture's most recognizable phrases -- and a 20-year-old band -- is flipped into something wholly unpredictable.

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