When Wilco's Summerteeth came out many people--myself included--either underestimated it or never knew about it. Then came along Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, over which roughly 68% of music fans wet themselves, claiming it to be the new Sgt. Pepper's. However, YHF is no Summerteeth and actually pales in comparison to the far more structurally (and arguably aurally) inventive A Ghost Is Born, which went largely unnoticed/underappreciated by the masses. I invoke the hallowed Wilco here not as a sonic touchstone but rather as indicative of the pitfalls of being recognized one record too late, a fate that hopefully will not befall the Winnepegan band The Weakerthans, as they have just released an album far superior to their well-received third record; the A Ghost is Born to their Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
The Weakerthans second record Left and Leaving is one of the better records of the last decade but still received little to no attention. However, the inferior (though still good) follow-up--2003 's Reconstruction Site--was lauded as a masterpiece by many, garnering the rave reviews and attention Left and Leaving was rightfully due. Now they have released Reunion Tour, a step above and beyond Reconstruction Site. The sonic quality is equally as polished though significantly more textured than their previous record. The engaging opener "Civil Twilight" and its follow-up "Hymn of the Medical Oddity" are the two best examples of this newfound textural canvas. Subtle use of tape loops, extra tracks, and other well-worn ear-candy techniques provide a sense of "exploration," though only in the way little kids "explore" by camping in the backyard. This is not at all a bad thing, however, as the centerpiece of The Weakerthans body of work is John K. Samson's songwriting and any unneeded distraction from it only detracts from the overall effect (for reference, see Reconstruction Site's nearly superb but overly busy "Hospital Vespers").
The main way in which Reunion Tour takes a step beyond their previous work, though, is in the musical craft itself. Rest assured Mr. Samson's impeccable lyrics remain, providing the same insights and hidden surprises listeners have come to expect (this reviewer will refrain from spoiling those surprises with direct quotes), but they are now coupled with music that if not groundbreaking is at least quite interesting, utilizing their rhythm section to far greater effect and using less straightforward song structures. Meanwhile, notably and thankfully absent are the kinds of saccharine sentiments that dragged down some of the cuts on Reconstruction Site. Instead, such ideas are tempered with either contrasting music or clever lyrical juxtaposition. For instance, "Virtute the Cat Explains Her Departure" finds the ultra-sappy cat from Reconstruction Site offering far more substantial, and thereby moving, details into her owner's life than the faux-anthemic counterpart "Plea From a Cat Named Virtute."
Most notable on this record, however, is the way in which The Weakerthans managed to eschew the indie rock tradition of second-half letdowns by backloading their album with all of the strongest songs. Tracks like "Elegy for Gump Worsley" (a spoken-word tribute to the brilliantly talented manchild who tended goal for the Rangers), "Reunion Tour," and "Bigfoot!" find the band in their best form since Left and Leaving, while the more pop-oriented songs (among them insta-hit "Tournament of Hearts") have more cream than sugar, providing a far richer experience (pardon the metaphorical schlock).
After one listen I thought it was quite good. The lyrics are great, the production is good. However, two listens and I was thoroughly convinced--this is quite simply an absolutely beautiful record. It's the kind of record that makes your heart hurt, though you're not entirely sure why (that good friend nostalgia, maybe). This may not be the best record you'll hear all year, but it most likely would be if it weren't for Sky Blue Sky. Damn Wilco.
Jams: "Civil Twilight"; "Reunion Tour"