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Wilco pushes forward with a more layered sound - including trumpets, a harpsichord and even a "Beach Boys moment"

During a two-day photo shoot for Wilco's new album, guitarist Nels Cline, a reluctant rock star of sorts, had a rock-star moment. "I felt like I was in the Beatles or something," he explains, "doing this photo shoot in Milwaukee, standing outside drawing traffic with a camel with a party hat on its head. The camel's name was Alfred. I spent a lot of time right next to Alfred at one point, and Alfred was cool."

For whatever reason, Alfred the two-humped Bactrian camel ended up on the cover of Wilco's seventh studio recording, Wilco (the album), released this week on the Nonesuch imprint. "It was a complete flight of fancy, and I think it's something between the photographer, Autumn de Wilde, and Jeff [Tweedy]," Cline offers. "There were so many wild things we did for two days taking pictures. And somehow or another there was a camel. There was never a specific idea that there would be a camel on the album cover. The idea was that we'd do all these wild photos and then figure out what we liked or what Jeff liked."

The album cover may be a bit peculiar — a camel standing proudly on a patio in back of six diminutive chairs and a table — but it also begs to be studied, just like the music inside. On the surface, Wilco (the album) may seem like another straightforward, no-frills offering from the group, but underneath, the disc is much more layered than its predecessor, 2007's Sky Blue Sky, which was mostly recorded live in the studio with a few overdubs added.

As Cline explains, all kinds of stuff is happening on Wilco (the album), like some crazy harmony ideas on "Sonny Feeling" done by bassist John Stirratt and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansome. "There's a total Beach Boys moment in there," he says. Indeed. There's a trumpet on the gorgeous "Everlasting Everything," as well as a harpsichord, and "Deeper Down" features Cline's theremin-esque lap-steel and his higher-octave melodies, which he plays using a Jerry Jones "Shorty" twelve-string octave guitar. On "You Never Know," meanwhile, Cline's slide guitar pays homage to George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord."

"I hope people don't think it's flippant or something," he says, "because it's actually supposed to be fun.

"I wasn't in the band during the Summerteeth era," adds Cline, who joined Wilco in 2004, "but I think there were certain aspects of this record that are a little bit similar in that there are sounds that maybe people haven't heard on Wilco records as much. Sounds of Mellotrons and certain samples and things like that. Overall, it's more the songs and what happens in the songs that people are going to be surprised at. I don't think they're going to be surprised like, 'Oh, that sounds like a Mellotron or strings, or do I hear a trumpet?' The previous records have addressed some of those sounds. I think all we did was say, 'Anything goes, and what worked for these songs,' and if people are surprised, maybe they didn't hear Summerteeth, maybe they didn't hear Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. I don't know, but I think there's something kind of classic about the way this record unfolds."

The band started working on Wilco (the album) in October last year in its loft on Chicago's north side. In late December, Tweedy, Stirratt, Sansone and drummer Glenn Kotche were invited to New Zealand by Crowded House's Neil Finn to participate in 7 Worlds Collide, a collaborative benefit album and mini-tour that also featured Johnny Marr and Radiohead's Phil Selway and Ed O'Brien, among others.

Jim Scott, who had mixed previous Wilco albums like Being There, Summerteeth and Sky Blue Sky, was recording the 7 Worlds Collide project. The four bandmembers decided to stay in New Zealand to write and record, with Scott acting as co-producer and engineer. The guys then brought their material back to the loft in Chicago, where they joined Cline and keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen and started overdubbing, with Tweedy laying down vocal tracks; they also brought Feist in to duet with Tweedy on "You And I."

Cline says the idea of the new album was to settle on a batch of songs early on, to refine them and get them to sound the way they do, "which to say may be super-fabulous, I don't know." While Cline says the songwriting process is completely collective, with members each helping arrange the songs, Tweedy has the final say. "But we all get a lot of chances to try as many different things as we can," he points out. "And Jeff is really pushing us to not take the easy road every time. Pat did a whole lot on this record, as far as different instruments and flavors. We just tried some un-obvious sonic things, some of which didn't make the cut, but the idea was to try them. And so that's pretty give-and-take. It's fun. It's collaborative."

From the time Tweedy first brought them to the table to the time they appeared on the album, the songs didn't change that much. "It was a different process than Sky Blue Sky, because Jeff just had all these songs," Cline notes. "They were pretty solid from the very beginning, so that was already really different. But as far as how they morphed or warped or whatever, not that much, except there were some songs where Jeff was really going for something that I would loosely term, like, something musically very colorful and rather poetic and cinematic, maybe. Songs like 'Deeper Down' or 'Everlasting Everything,' where there was a lot of overdubbing involved. There were a lot of different ways that things could have gone at that point.

"So we basically just tried a lot of things and let it — a certain amount of it anyway — sort itself out in the mix phase," Cline continues. "That was really different, because Sky Blue Sky was essentially performances, you know, just live performances, fairly unfettered. But some of the songs like 'Country Disappeared' and 'Solitaire,' they're just completely straightforward and played as we played them in demos — I mean, really not morphed at all."

Although some of the new songs may be a bit simple, others have presented a challenge when trying to figure out how to interpret them in a live setting. Cline says it's a problem encountered when you have records where you're thinking more about making a good track at the time, and not so much about how to play it live. For instance, Cline says they were playing "You Never Know" in Spain, and Tweedy asked him if there was a way he could do the slide guitar as well as play the electric guitar rhythm stuff.

Cline says he thought he had figured out how to do it using a double-neck Jerry Jones guitar. "Everlasting" and "Deeper Down," on the other hand, are going to be challenging to play live, but Cline thinks everything else they've played should come together fairly well.

Kind of like their recent photo shoots. The act did another photo shoot in the Windy City recently for Spin, in which the members are on top of a legendary hot dog drive-in called Super Dog. "It has this giant man and woman hot dog on the top," says Cline. "We were on the roof next to them, and people were honking their horns and stuff, and this guy's lying on his back on the lower roof taking our picture. It was very fun, and for me, it was very rock. The fun, sort of strangely irreverently glamorous side of rock, not the just-tried-to-look-like-you-just-killed-your-family kind of rock. A more innocent, fun side of it."

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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon