April 13th, 2001
By Mark Guarino
Daily Herald Music Critic
While John Stirratt was recording his debut album, he was suddenly struck by a fear, peculiar for someone who makes music for a living “Oh my God, people are going to listen to this.”
Such is the anxiety raised by that longtime rock entity known as the side project. As anyone versed in rock history knows, side projects can be indulgent jokes or precious jewels.
Recent proof are solo debuts from Limp Bizkit guitarist Wes Borland (indulgent joke) or Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante (precious jewel).
For Stirratt, the bassist in Wilco and its genesis band Uncle Tupelo, recording an album under the band name The Autumn Defense meant a chance to record his own songs, something he hadn’t done since the first Wilco record, “A.M.” (Reprise/Warner Bros.), in 1995.
The resulting album, “The Green Hour” (Broadmoor), is hardly a novelty for Wilco fans, but a lush and orchestrated pop album in league with recent fare from other pop-minded Chicago bands such as The Chamber Strings and Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire (see side story).
Stirratt includes his own version of the current Chamber Strings single, “Make It Through the Summer,” which he co-wrote with Strings song-writer Kevin Junior. Like that band, Stirratt’s musical references are obscure ‘6-s pop, and the lyrics are steeped in romance.
The songs are constructed much like little worlds of their own, ranging from triumphant pop marches (“Long Forgotten Love,” “Full 5 Places”) to mellow, beatific ballads (“Wellspring”) to dreamy atmosphere (“Recuperating From the War”), featuring horns moaning in the shadows as a pedal steel guitar tilts in slumber above.
The album was written and recorded just after sessions for Wilco’s fourth album, “Summer-teeth” (Reprise/Warner Bros.) had ended. By that time, the songwriting of Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy had progressed from country-minded rock into pop psychedelia, supporting dreamy and intense lyrics.
Stirratt turned to his own writing for something “open and more expansive.”
“At that point, I was kind of rebelling against (‘Summerteeth’),” he said. “It got really dense for me towards the end. I still have a hard time listening to it for that reason.”
Stirratt, 33, had been the song-writer in bands before Wilco but has stayed as a side man in the band because Tweedy’s “music has never ceased to intrigue me,” he said. “I’ve never gotten tired of the musical direction. Which is rare.”
What kept him from writing in Wilco has not just been Tweedy’s role as chief songwriter, but also geography. Since late 1999, Stirratt had been living in New Orleans, while the rest of the band made Chicago its home base and built a studio.
During a band break in late 1998, Stirratt returned to New Orleans to “knock something out” on his own. Recording with multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone and several special guests, Stirratt lived in the French Quarter while he wrote and recording at Kingsway Studios just steps away.
His connection to New Orleans runs deep. He was raised in a suburb on the city’s north bank. He and his twin sister, Laurie, attended the University of Mississippi in Oxford where they hooked up with Cary Hudson and formed The Hilltops, a regional band that mostly played the South (Laurie and Hudson now play together in Blue Mountain).
They opened dates for Uncle Tupelo before Stirratt was invited to be the band’s guitar tech and ended up playing on the band’s final record, “Anodyne” (Sire).
Since then, Wilco’s popularity has been “riches of work.” The band’s collaboration with U.K. singer Billy Bragg resulted in two Grammy-nominated albums in which the band put music to unused lyrics from Woody Guthrie. Both “Mermaid Avenue” (Elektra) albums were designed to reveal a little-known side of the American icon as a whimsical joker and erstwhile dreamer.
On Stirratt’s album, Guthrie’s words are fit into a snug, cocktail jazz tune, “Revolutionary Mind.” It may be perhaps the most surprising side of Guthrie yet: “I need a progressive woman … to ease my revolutionary mind,” Stirratt sings in his gentle voice.
“The lyrics were so suave and weirdly smarmy,” Stirratt laughed.
Wilco is currently in the misty of mixing its sixth album, tentatively due in July. Until then, Stirratt is playing two solo shows in New York and one in Chicago, Thursday at Schubas. For the occasion, he’s assembled a large band including horn players and a pedal steel guitarist.
“I’m sure I’ll be nervous,” he said. “But it’s all so weirdly lucky.”