25 Nov 2011

The Minus 5 - Down With Wilco - Obscure Classics

Great albums you may have missed.

The Minus 5 - Down With Wilco ( 2003 )

Scott McCaughey's lack of recognition is a total mystery to me. His noisy alternative rock / pop act the Young Fresh Fellows were one of the most influential bands in the Seattle music scene from the mid eighties and we all know what that led to. He then formed the Minus 5 in the mid nineties with R.E.M's Peter Buck, and members of the Posies as a creative outlet for his love of vintage sixties and seventies style pop. Since then the Minus 5's roster has also included Colin Meloy and other Decemberists, and on this release Wilco. Clearly he has some fans - they're all famous and work with him, but why isn't he a household name? It's certainly not to do with a shortage of vintage pop hooks, because he's got them by the bucketload. I suspect that McCaughey's often self deprecating wit may be to blame - he simply seems too smart for mainstream acceptance. It also doesn't help that the media generally focus on who else is playing on his records, as if he's a bit player in his own show.
Having heard all of the Minus 5's albums now I can safely confirm that McCaughey is very much the captain of his own ship, and that it his unique voice which is the common, dominant thread throughout his back catalogue.
Case in point is 2003's Down With Wilco, which features a line up of McCaughey, Buck, the High Llama's Sean O'Hagan and all 4 members of Wilco ( at the time ).
Recorded concurrently with Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, this was feverishly snapped up by the music press as yet another adventurous Wilco side project. Never mind the fact that McCaughey had the lion's share of the writing credits and that Tweedy only had a couple of vocal spots on the whole album, this, we were led to believe, was Yankee Hotel Foxtrot part 2. Which would have disappointed a lot of people when they got around to listening to it as this is a McCaughey record through and through with Wilco playing a supporting role at best. I'd be curious to hear how different this would sound without their involvement. If anything Down With Wilco has more in common with Wilco's previous album Summerteeth - both show an obvious Pet Sounds era Beach Boys influence, and both are gems of harmonic piano and guitar based pop music.
This influence is most obvious on gorgeous chamber pop gems That's Not The Way That It's Done and Retrieval of You, which is a great example of McCaughey's skewed sense of humour. Apparently Tweedy sent McCaughey an e-mail using this phrase, which then inspired him to write this lyric where the narrator of the song picks up a famous rock star from the airport and kidnaps them.

My Retrieval Of You:

Tweedy contributes the Family Gardener which is a pleasant folk number which wouldn't have fit comfortably on Yankee but feels right at home here.
Elsewhere, Where Will You Go's guitar hook comes straight out of the Badfinger songbook, and The Old Plantation sounds like an old lost AM radio hit.
For those that connect with this I would also recommended 2006's self titled Minus 5 album and 2009's Killingsworth, as well as investigating the Baseball Project - a new band McCaughey has formed with former Dream Syndicate frontman Steve Wynn which unusually presents a musical history of the sport and it's major characters. Not as niche as it may sound.

Dear Employer ( The Reason I Quit ):

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