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October 12, 2010

Once Around, Once Again: the Autumn Defense keeps its alt-country calm

The side project has long been a staple of the music industry. It is often a venue for an artist who feels underutilized to showcase his or her own talents or to explore a vastly different sound than his or her main project.

But the side project is a double-edged sword. It is seemingly impossible for one to escape the expectations of critics and fans of the main project. Yet, this also helps ensure the album’s commercial success.

With that said, it’s worth noting that The Autumn Defense is a side project of the Chicago band Wilco. Nevertheless, the band, which consists of John Stirrat and Pat Sansone, has been creating albums for quite some time. The Autumn Defense’s origins date back to its 2001 debut The Green Hour. Since then, it has released two additional albums, 2003’s Circles and 2007’s self-titled release.

The connection to Wilco will inevitably spark some media and consumer interest, as the band has increasingly shifted from the alternative country sound to a more accessible, easy-listening type of rock that suburban parents probably play while driving kids to school. Add to this the fact that Wilco itself was formed by the remaining members of the alternative-country band Uncle Tupelo, and the scope of potential listeners only widens.

Once Around, The Autumn Defense’s newest release, certainly has moments that channel Wilco, namely the opening track, “Back of My Mind.” It is similar to Wilco’s album A Ghost is Born, or easily could have fit into the group’s latest album, Wilco, (the Album). Regardless, the connection is quite apparent.

The instrumentation is just one aspect that Wilco listeners may recognize in this album. The same sorts of overtones work their way onto Once Around. The structure of the songs is similar to that of Wilco, and even the vocal stylings are eerily familiar to Jeff Tweedy’s.

From there on, the album finds its stride as a nostalgic nod to the country-pop sounds of recent times, rather than the alt-country that Uncle Tupelo first concocted and Wilco continued in its early years. The title track begins with somber strumming and plucking before the dramatic beat shifts to a more active, engaging pace. The melody eerily fades back to the slow tempo reminiscent of a march, and back again to bursting vocals.

The songs include hints of string instrumentation that add an aura of eras past, especially that of older country music. “The Swallows of London Town” has an up-tempo, bluesy sound that seems to have more Americana elements than what the title would imply. Other songs are soft and somber. The lyrics of “Step Easy” assert “you and I were part of the fallin’ ember,” and this sentiment is reflected in its rich tones and steady rhythms.

The songs drift into one another, and the album as a whole ebbs and flows along with no overtly grandiose moments. This can make for a reflective mood, but there are no songs that are extremely different from what follow or precede them.

This means that there are no real, tangible highlights. There is nothing that has the power to be an immediate standout, and the lack of sonic variety can be a bit repetitive. The only real difficulty upon listening is that nothing really and truly innovative occurs within the album’s confines of about 44 minutes.

Perhaps this isn’t the type of album that is supposed to leave the listener absolutely blown away. That isn’t to say that Once Around isn't a good album. It's a nice, quaint collection of soft tunes. However, while the rich sonic atmosphere mirrors the understated yet ever-changing conditions of autumn itself, the album leaves more to be desired.

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