Music is not only Jeff Tweedy’s lifelong obsession, it’s his favorite source for metaphors. Tweedy, frontman and visionary for the band Wilco, continually tries to explain his mercurial relationship with the world through his relationship with music: “they fell in love in the key of C” (“Shot in the Arm”); “sad sad songs tuned to chords strung down your cheeks” (“Jesus, Etc.”); “playing KISS records beautiful and stoned” (“Heavy Metal Drummer”); “the best band will never get signed” (“The Late Greats”). You get the idea.
This can cause problems in a live context, where private whispers can feel like shameless applause lines, most notably with “Misunderstood,” the slow brooder that opens Wilco’s double-live disc Kicking Television: Live In Chicago. When Tweedy sings, in the saddest imaginable voice, “You still love rock ’n’ roll,” the audience whoops it up with Pavlovian predictability, creating a cornball moment to rival any Foghat concert circa 1975.
Fortunately, audience stupidity can’t hold down a band as gifted and focused as Wilco, and Kicking Television is the rare live album that feels like more than a pricey tour souvenir. This band works out its deconstructionist impulses in the studio, so the arrangements vary little from the ones we’ve already heard — give or take a few Velvet Underground-inspired guitar wigouts — and Tweedy’s vocals are uncannily (disappointingly?) faithful to his studio performances. But the relaxed funkiness of the group’s stellar rhythm section subtly elevates material from the tired 2004 release A Ghost Is Born, particularly the swinging “Handshake Drugs” and “Company In My Back.”
| Kicking Television: Live in Chicago |
Nothing can redeem “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” an 11-minute “Sister Ray” knockoff, and Tweedy can’t really muster the pipes for the well-intentioned closer, Charles Wright’s soul anthem “Comment (If All Men Are Truly Brothers).” But Kicking Television is a credible corollary to this band’s last three albums, a convincing demonstration that its production sleight-of-hand can be recreated with ease. •