Autumn Defense Circles

Autumn Defense Circles
Anyone who’s seen I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, the documentary of Wilco’s last couple of chaotic years, can be forgiven in thinking that bassist John Stirratt was looking for the first opportunity to return to the relative serenity of his soft rock side project. However, this sophomore effort is much more than a bass-man’s holiday. Stirratt and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone have furthered their initial collaboration on ’01’s The Green Hour with an even more glorious tribute to heavy mellow landmarks such as Love’s Forever Changes. Like the orange sunset on its cover, Circles immediately sets a laid-back tone, but its intricate harmonies and arrangements never fail to engage. If Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was the sound of a band reinventing itself without any reference points, the M.O. of the Autumn Defense is an unabashed reverence for the classic California sound. Sure, such a syrupy description might be an instant turn off for many, but anyone who admires Rufus Wainwright or Belle and Sebastian will get the bittersweet appeal of songs like "The World (Will Soon Turn Our Way)” and "Iowa City Adieu.” If Stirratt wasn’t a member of one of the most important bands on the planet, Circles by all rights should be hailed as a major triumph. But as such, its charms will have to be savoured only until the next Wilco album inevitably overshadows it.

This album seems much more focused than the first one. True? Sansone: Yeah, John and I worked a lot more closely together this time. With The Green Hour it was largely a case of the two of us just having some songs we wanted to record and the results were kind of all over the map, sonically. On Circles we definitely wanted a consistent vibe throughout the album, and I think we achieved that.

Did Wilco’s recent exploits in the studio play any role? Stirratt: No, not really. And I should point out that what was in the documentary obviously doesn’t represent how we normally work. It is stressful at times exploring all our options in the studio, but that’s also what makes it exciting. Recording with the Autumn Defense is great almost for the completely opposite reasons; most of the time Pat and I just go through our record collections, find an obscure album, and say, "Let’s try to do something like this.”

Are you offended by being labelled "soft rock?” Stirratt: Not really, just because that’s a term that I don’t think most people are familiar with anymore. There was a lot of soft rock that deservedly needed to be thrown into the dustbin of history, but there were some things, like David Gates’s songs for Bread, that stand the test of time. I guess all that stuff was replaced by the Michael Bolton power ballad in the ’80s, and nobody bothered to rediscover it. I guess it’s just the cliché — a good song is always a good song, regardless of how or when it was recorded. There are even a couple of Air Supply songs I don’t mind. (Arena Rock)