As the sidemen in Wilco, John Stirratt and Pat Sansone are somewhat invisible behind frontman Jeff Tweedy. It’s his band; Stirratt and Sansone just play along as bassist and utility multi-instrumentalist, respectively. They’re quiet operators, but they play pivotal roles that have come to shape the band’s grandiose sound. Professional musicians of the highest order, Stirratt and Sansone yield to Tweedy’s artistic ideology most of the time, saving their own creative kicks for The Autumn Defense.
It’s how they’ve balanced their songwriting since 2001: do a Wilco record, then do an Autumn Defense record. But one should not bring Wilco-sized expectations to this band. The same tactful musicianship is at work, but Stirratt and Sansone reel in the drama and overall pretensions of Tweedy’s songwriting, settling instead on the gentlest of pop songs.
Their latest record, Fifth, rarely gets above a murmur. To its downfall, it embraces the label “soft rock” without shame. Opener “None of This Will Matter” is the only song with any discernible bite, as spry guitars chime against a simple vocal melody sung by Stirratt, recalling the pleasant, nice guy pop bands of the early ’90s (Sloan, The Posies). Had the record followed this template, it would have been more memorable. After the catchy jangle pop of “This Thing That I’ve Found”, the duo fall into a series of slow-paced burners that account for the majority of the album — all stacked smack in the middle of the tracklist, a gauntlet of boredom.
There’s not a single risk-taking note on this album, nothing that vies for the listener’s attention. Every song is a love song, somber and slightly melancholy. Some go for folksy Crosby, Stills & Nash vibes (“Under the Wheel”), while others hint at old Brill Building tunes (“I Want You Back”). Each is played perfectly and sung nicely. The level of musical competency is elite. But Fifth is too clean, too tame. Only the first song (which ironically warns that “none of this will matter”) leaves any lasting impact; the rest drift by with indifference.
Essential Tracks: “None of This Will Matter”