Ashes of American Flags

Movies Reviews Wilco
Ashes of American Flags

New Wilco concert film presents a disarmingly modest sampling of the band’s recent road life

I should acknowledge up front that I am one of the crusty and presumably dwindling number of Wilco fans that still generally prefers them as something closer to an or power-pop band. I miss the raucous Replacements-lite energy of the Being There tour. I think they just about nailed it with Summerteeth but have been marginally over-indulged ever since. I always felt that some of the production touches and vague avant-gardeisms on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot weakened the album. As insanely talented as they are, I tend to think drummer Glenn Kotche and guitarist Nels Cline frequently overload songs that don’t always benefit from the weight of their technique. Sky Blue Sky is occasionally beautiful but somehow leaves me cold. I miss Jay Bennett.

I realize that makes me the type of fan who threatens to hold a band like Wilco back. I realize that part of what’s special about Wilco is Jeff Tweedy blowing past Farrar into new musical corners and very quickly shedding the assumptions cast by Uncle Tupelo’s shadow. I do hear a beauty to the bits of static and raw noise the band now liberally sprinkle in their albums and live shows and can sometimes groove on the more surrealist lyrics. I still dutifully buy and find songs to enjoy on every album even if Tweedy may never rewrite “Forget the Flowers.” But I can’t lie and pretend that I haven’t found Wilco more pretentious and less fun as time has dragged on, and that my passion for the band hasn’t flagged proportionally.

For me, Ashes of American Flags starts to bridge some of the gaps that have developed between this old Wilco fan and the new Wilco. While the fragments of live shows captured here still have some of the somber gravity that has characterized the band since YHF, there’s a buoyant soul that has clearly returned. The Tipitina’s show partially captured here feels positively kinetic in contrast to the ones circa 2002ish where Tweedy and Leroy Bach stood in place in thick jackets and two-day scruff and scowled at the floor.

More than that, in contrast to the band’s last film, I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, which was a celebrated exposition of YHF’s business and personnel dramas, Ashes of American Flags finds the band in a self-assured and understated but lucid mood. Pat Sansone hints that Tweedy’s occasional feigned artistic confusion may be a bit of an act, while Tweedy chuckles at the intimidating spectacle of Cline and Kotche. Bassist and mainstay John Stirratt gets his due as the survivor and anchor he has been, while Mikael Jorgensen is nearly invisible everywhere except the songs. It’s a series of quick but effective personality sketches interwoven with shows in five cities cobbled together to make a career-spanning set list. While inevitably omitting a few great songs, the performances are largely flawless, the cinematography is crisp and the net effect is to remind even those who have strayed a bit that there remains a lot that’s very special about Wilco, and always will be.

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