AUTUMN DEFENSE with THORNLEY at the Horseshoe (370 Queen West), Tuesday (February 10). Free. 416-598-4753. Rating: NNNNN
In today's too cool musical climate, it's a brave man who hangs his hat beside iconic soft rocker James Taylor's. So it's shocking to hear that John Stirratt, Wilco's bassist and, with producer/musician Pat Sansone, the core of sweet indie pop outfit Autumn Defense, takes pride in the lush 70s-era Laurel Canyon vibe of his new Circles (Arena Rock) disc.
The album is wistful and sweet, drenched in harmonies and that warm, woolly quality characteristic of old-school California pop production, but I'm still treading lightly around the AM radio-lite question when I talk with Stirratt at home in Chicago.
Amazingly, the soft-spoken songwriter sees my James Taylor and ups the ante.
"I'd go as far as Bread, even," he laughs. "It's funny, cuz vinyl is such a big part of how Pat and I hang out, playing records that are just bad for the fun of it. I mean, things like America! I forgot what a huge Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young rip-off they were!
"Humour is definitely part of it. It's fun to check out Bread records, especially when they try to really rock. It's hilarious. Shit, I don't know if I can think of a better ballad in the world than If. Sure, there's a bit of camp, but there's also a lot of love."
It's hard to fault Stirratt for wanting to get back to pop basics when you consider the deliberately challenging avant-rock experimentation of Wilco's last disc, 2002's critically lauded Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. With Sonic Youth's Jim O'Rourke on board, Jeff Tweedy and company left the singable convention of Summerteeth behind for found sound snippets, weird percussion and hyper-oblique lyrics.
While Stirratt denies any pat cause-and-effect relationship between the two albums, he does admit he needs his own project to stay happy within Wilco's notoriously feudal structure.
"Wilco is so much Jeff's thing, now more than ever," he fumbles. "Uh, I mean - I don't mean to say that it's not collaborative, cuz we still get together and jam as we always have, and he's very generous. But I definitely want to have other stuff going on. We all understand that, as full-time musicians, the nature of Wilco affords everyone else besides Jeff time to do other stuff. And even Jeff has other projects."
Although Tweedy, O'Rourke and drummer Glenn Kotche released an album as alter egos Loose Fur last year, Stirratt claims Wilco are still very much intact. They've been holed up in the studio recording their next disc.
Still, Stirratt seems more drawn to outlets that can showcase his considerable songwriting, like Autumn Defense and the upcoming album of stark country tunes he's been working on with twin sister Laurie (formerly of Blue Mountain).
Good idea, especially since Tweedy has a habit of turfing band members when they get a little too big for their britches. I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, the 2002 documentary about the making of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, witnessed the loss of loud-mouthed Jay Bennett, who wanted more of a say in the production and engineering department than was kosher. But little was said about the departure of drummer Ken Coomer, who was replaced by Kotche right before filming began.
You'd think Stirratt would have something to say about losing his right-hand man in the rhythm section.
"Each one of these situations is super-complicated and painful, but I will say that each situation was a band agreement. I spent a ton of time with Ken, and it was difficult to lose him. In retrospect, I do think it was the right decision. Getting Glenn for Yankee Hotel and having him make such an impact on that record was amazing, but you can't take anything away from Ken's playing. It's a pure stylistic thing.
"I got burned in a couple of interviews. Now I refuse to say anything in depth, because I got stung and it cost me a relationship. I'll just say I'm lucky I got to play with them."