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|Wilco’s "Gold"-en Boy: Pronto, September 18 at RIBCO|
|Music - Feature Stories|
|Written by Jeff Ignatius|
|Wednesday, 16 September 2009 14:01|
Listening to the debut album from Pronto, the quartet fronted by Wilco keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen, the inescapable reference point is the singer/songwriter genre from the 1970s -- warm, organic, a little hazy, and mostly ready for AM radio. One can't avoid, for instance, Randy Newman's influence on "What Do You Know About You?"
Jorgensen, in a recent phone interview promoting his band's September 18 show at RIBCO, sounded tired of the comparison -- "We didn't set out ... [to] make a record that everybody's going to say sounds like the '70s," he said -- but he didn't deny its accuracy.
All Is Golden is not all soft-focus AM-radio fare. "Monster" has the muscle of power pop, while "I Think So" belies Jorgensen's love of experimental music as it devolves into a coda of sax and electronics and noise. But even when the songs themselves don't fit the decade, there's still a pervasive vibe.
The surprise is that Jorgensen is a relatively recent convert, for a long time not being a fan of the era's musical giants -- Neil Young and the Rolling Stones, for example -- or even the premise that lyrics are a meaningful vehicle for musical expression. He and his collaborators on previous experimental, instrumental music projects dismissed lyrics as merely "a vehicle for the melody."
A member of Wilco since 2002, Jorgensen said that it was his bandmates who helped him listen to that '70s music "with relatively fresh ears." He had previously discounted the decade, "just because it was part of a tradition I had no connection with culturally."
Personal upheaval -- the deaths of both his parents in 2003 and 2004 -- also contributed, he said. "Lyrics really began to make a lot more sense and illustrated this huge wealth of emotional information that I had just been ignoring ... ," he said. "This whole other dimension that was available for expression besides just music."
Hence the current version of Pronto.
There were other factors leading to the style of All Is Golden, which was released in March.
For one thing, Jorgensen wanted to take the music on the road, "to try to have songs based in songwriting, so it was more or less portable. ... That would sort of widen up the possibilities for our touring plans ... ."
That led to mimicking the straightforward recording techniques of the 1970s: 24 tracks covering the basic elements and leaving a few for "lace or tree-trimming." It's "a very direct way to get these songs recorded," he said.
The music is accessible, Jorgensen's songs are smartly constructed, and his singing makes me marvel that he's let only his fingers do the talking for so long. Yet Pronto had difficulty finding a label home, finally ending up with Contraphonic.
The reason, Jorgensen said, was Wilco. Labels were hesitant, he said, to sign an act whose leader would be busy in a different band for long stretches.
"Live music is probably more important than it ever has been" to labels, he said. "We're not going to be able to go out and tour for two months like most other bands at our level because Wilco takes up a significant amount of my time and energy."
Even without Wilco, he said, "I don't know that I could do a grueling two-month van tour at the ripe old age of 37. I probably could, but I don't think it's something I would enjoy by week seven. ... It's just so different with Wilco. We have an amazing crew. We've got tour buses, nice hotel rooms. It's like vacation touring. Pronto's more like 'Nam, like being in the shit or something."
Pictures of Then: Pepper in Those Pretty Moments
One of the opening bands for Pronto at RIBCO is Minneapolis' Pictures of Then, whose confident and polished And the Wicked Sea was released in June.
The unsigned band's second album, And the Wicked Sea seems a good match for All Is Golden. The group's members called the recording process "honest," and by that they mean both the way they communicated in crafting it and the way it was recorded to be an accurate portrait of the band at this point in time.
"If we couldn't pull it off live, then it wasn't going to make into a song," said singer/guitarist Casey Call.
Drummer Joe Call said the recording represents a reaction to the "ridiculous harmonies and the 60 dubbed guitars" of contemporary albums; the group's effort strives for a "more pure approach to record-making.": "Let's document the band. Instead of creating something that could never live outside of that album, it was more or less a snapshot in time. ... This is an honest band who went into the studio, and this is what they sounded like at that exact moment."
A.V. Twin Cities was enthusiastic about the results: "Wicked Sea flirts with glam rock and psychedelia, but builds its engaging sound on a solid foundation of guitar-driven indie rock in the style of Modest Mouse, though Pictures of Then lean more toward pop beauty and strummy ballads than Isaac Brock's rough-edged rock."
The process affected the songwriting. The band's members recognized that their tracking-live-in-the-same-room approach meant they couldn't patch together a good song. "I think it actually made recording more fun," said keyboardist Tim Greenwood, "inasmuch as you had to actually preconceive and have a lot of forethought about what your part was going to be, and make sure that it actually stood up and was able to fill out a track."
Casey Call said the album's title reflects both personal and worldwide turmoil, although the band stressed that it's not a downer.
"We like to try to pepper in those pretty moments," Greenwood said.
"There's still something beautiful that can be found," said Casey Call. The goal was to have "songs that ultimately take on sort of a positive vibe come out of negative frustration and experience."
Pronto will headline a show on Friday, September 18, at RIBCO (1815 Second Avenue in Rock Island). Pictures of Then and Jim the Mule open, and the show starts at 9 p.m. Cover is $8.
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