BY FRED MILLS
If George Harrison was known as “the quiet Beatle,” Pat Sansone and John Stirratt might be viewed as “the quiet Wilcos.” Much as Harrison seemed content to let John and Paul get the lion’s share of attention, the duo tends to defer to frontman Jeff Tweedy (and to a degree, fiery lead guitarist Nels Cline) in terms of who’s the visual and psychological focus for the band. Yet also like Harrison, they bring a virtuoso-like musicality to the group—both are multiinstrumentalists at that—not to mention a near-encyclopedic knowledge of and appreciation for the entirety of rock’s rich heritage. That’s no knock on Tweedy (and Cline brings his own estimable gifts to the band’s table as well, beyond just the fretwork); but ask most Wilco fans and they’ll admit that Sansone and Stirratt are the smartest guys in the room among any gathering of musos, and not just the Wilco clan.
Fifth is, quite logically, the fifth studio album from the pair’s side project, and although Wilco has been insanely busy over the past couple of years, most recently taking on a high-profile tour with Bob Dylan and My Morning Jacket, they carved out time between Wilco tours to apply their diligence as songwriters and song-crafters, ultimately coming up with a dozen of their most gorgeous numbers to date. From an obvious love of the British Invasion—in particular, the Zombies, Kinks and, yes, Beatles—to an instinctual grasp of the complexities underlying West Coast sunshine pop and baroque psych (e.g., Beach Boys/Van Dyke Parks, Jimmy Webb and Love), the Autumn Defense, pure and simple, makes things look easy. If these two guys ever retire from the road they will have a long and lucrative career ahead of them as studio rats.
Among the individual picks to click here are Sansone’s “Things On My Mind,” jangly and ebullient and Buffalo Springfield-like with its handclaps, rolling percussion, electric 12-string and subtle phasing effects; and Stirratt’s stately, subtly gospellish “I Can’t Love Anyone Else,” which soars and swoons atop a warm bed of guitars and keyboards. The two also make a terrific songwriting team on several tracks, including the gently chugging, twangy “The Light In Your Eyes” (here, Sansone and Stirratt harmonize like siblings) and dreamy closing track “What’s It Take,” full of yearning and grace and loneliness and acceptance.
On the latter, guest guitarist John Pirruccello contributes some lovely slide and pedal steel lines, and he’s also a featured player on album standout “This Thing That I’ve Found”—and you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Autumn Defense had unearthed a vintage George Harrison slide guitar sample, so beatifically All Things Must Pass-esque is the tune. Sings Sansone, “Tonight, we just gotta get the feeling right/ What is this thing that we’ve found?” What they’ve found, is pop perfection, and Fifth is a contemporary gem.
DOWNLOAD: “This Thing That I’ve Found,” “The Light In Your Eyes,” “I Can’t Love Anyone Else”