Thursday , September 24 2020
Another look at Minus 5's Down With Wilco.

Gettin’ Down With A Young Fresh Fellow

Minus 5’s new disc, Down With Wilco (Yep Roc) has been grabbing a good deal of critical attention since it was released two weeks ago – and understandably so. The ad hoc group (a side project for singer/guitarist Scott McGaughey) is primarily composed of members of this year’s pop critical darlings, Wilco, while the disc’s periodic strange piano and guitar sounds often recall that group’s Nonesuch disc, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which has topped many a pop critic’s best-of list for 2002. Small wonder this disc’s getting plenty of play; in some music stores it’s even being sold in bins as a new Wilco release.
Fans of Pacific Northwestern garage denizens the Young Fresh Fellows (myself included) will have a different take on the matter. For us, this is one of McGaughey’s ongoing low-key pop-rock projects away from the YFF: the previous Minus 5 outing, Let the War Against Music Begin, was included in a two-disc jewel case alongside the Fellows’ last release Because We Hate You. Both discs were packaged as a mock battle-of-the-bands with the listener given a score card on the inner jewel box sleeve to rate each track.
I’ve been a McGaughey/Young Fresh Fellows fan since the early days of the Comedy Channel and the Higgins Boys & Gruber (their show had a theme song composed by the group). A working band since 1982, YFF specializes in ramshackle rock characterized by nuggety proto-psychedelic guitar, endearingly awkward vocals and smart-guy lyrics. An ideal band for college radio in the mid-eighties, where they had cultish play through tracks like “Amy Grant” (a funny soulful put-down of the Christian songstress). But what first hooked me was the sight and sound of the band’s video for a track from its ’89 release This One’s For the Ladies (Frontier Records), a remake of Ray Davies’ “Picture Book.” Somebody doing a cut from Village Green Preservation Society? The Kinks kultist in me was immediately intrigued.
YFF has released something in the neighborhood of seven CDs, and while some of ’em can be undeniably spotty, I play each one regularly. (But, then, I’ve also been known to pull out my copies of Preservation – Parts One & Two more often than they deserve, too.) Most solid items in the discography? The Men Who Loved Music (from whence came “Amy Grant,” but I also love nerd anthem “When the Girls Get Here,” too), Ladies plus Electric Bird Digest (all released on Frontier Records). 1992’s Low Beat Time plants the group within a chronology of great Pacific Northwest rock bands by including two songs recorded in the same no-track studio that the Sonics used to record sixties garage classics like “Strychnine” and “Psycho.” The results are predictably ragged, but cooler than anything the Hives have yet recorded.
Minus 5’s newie doesn’t aim for the same tin-can fuzziness. If anything, it works the ultra-plastic studio sounds of grandiose Beach Boys or Van Dyke Parks’ cultish Song Cycle. Not a lot of raucous rawk: more of an emphasis on smiles, harmony and, you know, ambiguous vibrations. Even McGaughey’s characteristic geekly vocals have been toned down into something more poppish. A fun disc to thse ears. Coolest tracks: “Retrieval of You,” a hooky gem told from the POV of a failed indy music type; the woozy “Daggers Drawn” and the neatly contradictory mid-tempo rocker “I’m Not Bitter.”

So is McGaughey playing Parks to Jeff Tweedy’s Brian Wilson? Perhaps. Only Parks was way too airy to even think of slipping an elegiac mention of Maurie’s Sex Shop into his frequently precious lyrics. Still, listening to the way the band shifts gears within the tracks of this obscurely connected concept album can’t help but bring back memories of great failed releases like Smiley Smile or Beach Boys Love You. That Down With Wilco looks to this great dead-end era is, I suspect, more a testimony to McGaughey than it is the one-time alt-country boys from Illinois.

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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