Watching Wilco: “Ashes Of American Flags”

wilco_ashes250With this week’s release of Wilco (The Album), there’s no better time to reconsider Wilco’s steady progression from scrappy alt-country forebears to kings of the AAA charts. Since each of Wilco’s studio albums has been pored over, criticized and deconstructed countless times, MAGNET’s Matt Siblo looked toward the band’s output on film. Watch as Jeff Tweedy can’t afford to buy Wendy’s for his hungry child! Marvel at guitarist Nels Cline’s inability to wear pants that cover his socks! See the Tweedy household and all of its bric-a-brac! And wonder at who’s been supplying this band with such awful beanies for the past decade. Today’s feature: 2009’s Ashes Of American Flags.

Yet another tourlogue, this one following the band through its 2008 off-beat club tour, Ashes Of American Flags’ existence calls into question whether Wilco has played any shows in the past two years without a camera crew present. Although the descriptor refers to its newly acquired horn section, Ashes finds the band looking and sounding like Total Pros, a far cry from the psychogenic vomiting and extended snoozy jam sessions of its past. Considering Wilco’s transformation into a well-adjusted, well-oiled unit a few years back (well-documented on the excellent Kicking Television), the band’s measured performances here are mostly for the benefit of giving its Sky Blue Sky material the mettle it lacked on Shake It Off. Like the congruity found in I Am Trying To Break Your Heart‘s gritty footage and the dissolution of Wilco 2.0, the cinematography on Ashes is rich and expansive, exploring not only the nimble poetry of its desolate landscape but also the wistful undercurrent of its most recent material. Directors Brendan Canty and Christoph Green’s richest images come from their stark shots of the decay and abandonment of small-town America in the wake of corporate development and expansion. Noticeably less eloquent are the explanations from the band, though bassist John Stirratt’s bold assertion that many people seem to have taken the corporate encroachment lying down is nothing if not provocative.

While much of this film will placate die-hards’ desire to get any taste of the band, the necessity for yet another live release is dubious. A great deal of Ashes features Tweedy singing the praises of his fellow bandmates, a welcome counterpoint to the neurotic uncertainty of his Yankee days but decidedly less entertaining. (And the footage veers toward an extended feel-good Real World confessional. Oh, that Nels sure is swell! And those solos!) The band’s presence here has an air of the willing elder statesmen shown in Tweedy’s increasingly confident use of the Nudie suit, Glenn Kotche’s library of baby books and Nels Cline’s copping to nights of self-induced whiplash. But behind all the middle-aged goodwill, Tweedy offers a flicker of realism when he admits that while “he’d like to think this lineup will be the last, things have changed in the past.” Pausing, he finishes, “As long as it involves John.”

1999’s Man In The Sand
2002’s I Am Trying To Break Your Heart
2006’s Sunken Treasure: Live In The Pacific Northwest
2007’s Shake It Off

What is your favorite Wilco album? Vote here.