The Minus 5 has always been a side project for Scott McCaughey, front man of the Seattle-based cult band The Young Fresh Fellows. The cast typically includes McCaughey and whoever happens to be around at the time. Peter Buck of REM and Ken Stringfellow from Big Star are the hold-overs from previous permutations, joined this time around with members of Wilco for their latest album, “Down With Wilco.”
The album is divided in thirds, over which thirteen songs are scattered-minus the five tracks of filler that’s usually there. Here are the chapter headings of each one, although it doesn’t provide much of a clue to the music contained within: (1) Formerly Hail Centurion, (2) Pantagruelian Offenses & Encounters, and (3) Scenes from a Boxcar. It opens with “Days of Wine and Booze,” a groping, impressionistic anthem to, well, wine and booze.
McCaughey handles most of the lead vocals, except for “The Family Gardener,” when he hands the mike over to Jeff Tweedy. He softly sings some nasty lines like, “My father always said/that I would never amount to anything.” His casual tone gives the narrator a weary acceptance and the song an emotional lift.
The album is full of catchy, weird pop songs and really starts picking up steam in the “second half” with “Where Will You Go,” propelled by a great guitar riff and Tweedy’s marimba accompaniment. “Dear Employer,” a song about the reasons for quitting a job, is sublimely funny.
Each carefully assembled track is punctuated by McCaughey’s arty pop-rock experiments-lots of strange noises, voices, samples, and the occasional cacophony of various instruments. But these production tricks don’t feel as distracting as they have in the past. The tempo of the album is bouncy and upbeat, with intricate melodies and hooks all filtered through McCaughey’s psychedelic kaleidoscope.
This is the most fun record the Minus 5 have made, giddy and unpretentious, and McCaughey’s quirky yet heartfelt lyrics really shine. In “The Old Plantation,” an album highlight, he sings: “But did you ever really try to peel away the sky?/Neither did I.” When you’re pop-rock genius, I suppose it’s all right to answer your own questions. As the record reaches a close, you see begin to understand the tragedy they are getting at.
These are not sad songs; there’s too much of that trademark McCaughey smirk. “I shout from the mountains that nothing need last,” McCaughey sings in a whispered vocal on “What I Don’t Believe.” The melancholy tone is often spiked with McCaughey’s dark humor, to give certain lines an almost haunting, lulling quality. This is an album about nostalgia, about the tragedy of time’s passing. Minus 5’s “Down With Wilco” is highly recommended.