Wilco Sound Their Best in Years on Hot Sun Cool Shroud

The Chicagoans rewrite their own momentum on their newest EP, sewing elements of a 25-year career into six refreshing vignettes.

Music Reviews Wilco
Wilco Sound Their Best in Years on Hot Sun Cool Shroud

Despite having released a trio of the greatest albums of this century (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, A Ghost is Born and Sky Blue Sky) in a row between 2002 and 2006, Wilco have never hinged their own momentum on an EP—at least not in the traditional sense. Sure, they’ve dabbled in the art of an extended play here and there, but usually as an incentive more than a realized stroke of creative progression. In 1997, they made All Over the Place but only released it as a 10”, promo-only vinyl; Moon Like the Moon (once called Australian EP and Bridge EP) was a free download for anyone who purchased Yankee Hotel Foxtrot back in 2003; Panthers EP was offered as a free download if you bought A Ghost is Born; when Sky Blue Sky came out, they had a bonus EP CD of the same name available only at independent record stores. Wilco have never been a singles band, either, having only released four non-album singles since 1995, and two of them were Beatles covers. An EP for Wilco has never been anything more than something extra for the band to tack onto a bigger, more consequential and prescient release. It only makes sense that now, not even a year after releasing their most experimental LP in more than a decade, they’ve opted to make an EP available to the masses without some kind of catch involved.

Wilco didn’t release any singles from their new EP, Hot Sun Cool Shroud, instead opting to put all six tracks out at once on June 28th—which also happened to be day one of their esteemed, long-running Solid Sound Festival. Last September, the band dropped their 13th studio album, Cousin, to mixed (but generally pretty good) remarks—including from us here at Paste. Heralded for its experimentalism on some songs but criticized for playing it safe on others, Cousin saw Wilco welcome an outside producer into the fold (Cate Le Bon) for the first time in 14 years and deliver a worthwhile sonic pivot from their previous effort, Cruel Country. Le Bon gave Wilco’s noise a douse of her modernist, non-linear color, and Cousin sounds like a spiritual successor to the avant-garde turns of A Ghost is Born but without the anger—an ambitious juxtaposition to Cruel Country’s 77-minute runtime and rest-on-one’s-laurels soundscape of return-to-form alt-country trads. Cousin, despite its imbalances, was impressionistic and complex enough to eschew the hues Wilco have too-often leaned on over the last decade; Cousin makes Star Wars sound like even more of an anomalous misstep.

Hot Sun Cool Shroud, however, is nothing like Cousin—it’s better. You’re getting a career’s worth of checkpoints in such a small vacuum, and the EP is a deft reminder that this is one of the greatest rock bands of this century that we’re dealing with after all. Given that Wilco just played all of A Ghost is Born front-to-back at Solid Sound this past weekend, it’s clear that the band hasn’t lost sight of what parts of their style work and what don’t. In many ways, Hot Sun Cool Shroud sharpens Cousin’s otherwise polarizing experimental moments; seeing how well their comfort zone works makes those left-field shots (makes, misses and someplace in-between) sound all the more nuanced and bold. The fact that these six tracks are Cousin leftovers doesn’t subtract their impact—they aren’t cutting-room-floor limbs severed from the host; the songs hold a unique, communal sentimenatility that contrasts the from-the-ground-up, piece-by-piece construction of the mothership album they were axed from in the first place.

“Hot Sun” cracks open the EP like a beating sun busting up tarmac. Wilco haven’t had an opening track this affecting since “Either Way” 18 years ago. It’s summer hardware that pesters your skin like July’s claustrophobic swelter. A backline of synthesizers hugs the set like an orchestra, as Wilco bounce between catchy, melodic singalong and jagged, fleeting breakdowns. It recalls the density of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born, mirroring how, despite featuring so many obvious moving parts, nothing sounds overrought or unneeded. A bass throbs here, a snare drum pattern hits with a texture perfect for pillowing Tweedy’s delivery of the “Ice, glassy ice, tumble in my plastic glass / Shouldn’t I be doing something? What can I do?” chorus. The melody segues quickly into a mangled lead guitar riff backed by a simmering, long-held rhythm chord.

The instrumental “Livid,” albeit a minute long, begins with a riff that sounds like a garage rock band trying to rip off AC/DC’s “Beating Around the Bush”—and it works because Tweedy and the gang sound absolutely mad despite the track’s brevity. It’s the kind of composition that has serious staying power, if only because Wilco could absolutely transform it into an epic onstage jam. “Livid” sounds like the product of Tweedy’s fixation on his Replacements and Minutemen roots. “Inside the Bell Bones,” another instrumental, takes a much more experimental approach than we’ve heard from Wilco in a long, long time—as if it was destined to subvert any expectations the band has garnered since beginning the dBpm era 13 years ago. The track, too, sounds like it was written with the intention of showcasing Glenn Kotche’s percussion talents, as Tweedy and Cline’s string work takes a backseat to Kotche’s drumming. Though it clocks in at less than two minutes in length, “Inside the Bell Bones” arrives like the early resounds of what could be an entire record’s tone and direction.

“Ice Cream” is the album’s slow-burn song, but it is beautifully compelling. When he’s not comparing himself to a melting dessert treat, Tweedy sings compassionately about expectations and abandonment through the lens of spirituality. “I didn’t know if I could be true enough to be a Bible,” he bemoans. “You held me up, never looked inside. You’d seen enough to leave me behind, for someone else to find.” “Ice Cream” is a choice example of Tweedy’s tectonic abilities as a songwriter, and it brings to mind some of his solo projects, especially WARM—but with an added delicacy from Mikael Jorgensen and Pat Sansone. Closing track “Say You Love Me” is the best alt-country offering Wilco have cooked up in years, and it would have fit perfectly on Summerteeth. It’s gentle until it’s not, as Tweedy’s Ode to Joy-era singing remains romantic and airy when the band kicks the arrangement into a higher tempo—the first verse is an especially bittersweet triumph, arriving soft like a valentine before drawing the curtain back on a performance underscored solemnly by droning strings. “Once you’re born, a single drop of sun—a ray of light—holds you in its arms,” Tweedy sings. “Once you’re gone, you shine on in your friends and then everyone you love hears your voice within.”

Hot Sun Cool Shroud is full steam ahead by the time it dissolves into “Annihilation”—Wilco’s strongest song in years. The band unvault jangly guitars dressed up with an industrialized poppiness; Tweedy plays rhythm, holding down the song’s foundation while Cline turns his six-string up and conjures the elements that haunted every turn of A Ghost is Born. Hot Sun Cool Shroud succeeds at amplifying numerous eras of Wilco’s career, and “Annihilation” is a modern-day epilogue to a five-year run that ended nearly two decades ago. It’s an exclamation point on a band that can oscillate between down-on-your-luck balladry and garage rock cut up by alien sampling without skipping a note. “Annihilation” sounds like a blistering sun—it sweats and it gouges and it bruises. The song, at once, throbs like a headache while professing a kinetic sense of hope from within. “Hey, we’re boiling angels,” Tweedy sings out. “Let’s kiss for hours, equal power. Let’s make it art.” It’s the kind of desire that’s too sweet to neglect, told in-between Cline’s guitar solos rippling like wind running through a silk dress but ripping through the fabric. If Cousin suggested that Wilco’s focus was beginning to wane, then Hot Sun Cool Shroud is Jeff Tweedy, John Stirratt, Glenn Kotche, Nels Cline, Mikael Jorgensen and Pat Sansone all snapping back into pattern.

Matt Mitchell is Paste’s music editor, reporting from their home in Northeast Ohio.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin