Before John Stirratt, and later Pat Sansone, joined forces with Wilco, they were busy making music in a different band. The Autumn Defense started at the beginning of the decade, and, over the course of five sporadic records, has spent much of that time working out just what the band was supposed to sound like. Stirratt has done the folk inspired thing, the 60s rock thing, and the piano ballad thing. Now, it seems, his time with Jeff Tweedy has rubbed off on him a bit, and on The Autumn Defenses latest, Once Around, theyre bringing it all together and doing the alt-country thing.
Their subdued 60s pop rock has been the backbone of The Autumn Defense since it started. Just as theyve now (and a little on the last record) taken a few hints from brother Jeff Tweedys songbook, you can hear that theres been a pretty mutual idea-sharing relationship between the groups over the years. Up until this latest release, there was a definable difference in The Autumn Defenses sound as a different entity all together, but with a decade of sharing band members with Wilco, the stylistic lines have been blurred some. It would be remiss to not mention the correlation between the two bands, and it almost seems inevitable that their sounds would eventually influence one another. That being said, Once Around freshens up The Autumn Defense in the way they really needed. Thus, this record is very much worth your attention.
There seems to be a collection of sounds happening on this record that travel through several places in the alt-country spectrum. While at points, its simple and enjoyable with the same streamlined tempo that has carried the band’s sound all along, for the most part, the writing feels very fresh. In the short forty minute runtime, you get songwriting revelations that make you go back and listen over and over, particularly the very strong opener Back of My Mind. For the first time, they have the makings of a real pop hit on their hands. The sweet harmonies and piano ala McCartney are near perfect with the ounce of country in the guitars. All these elements are time-tested and fit The Autumn Defense like a well-worn glove.
Throughout Once Around, John Stirratts vocals are clean and vibrant. His voice is really one of the best things about this band, and with those pipes in tow, his melodies have undergone a reboot, refreshing his approach to songwriting as on the title track. It starts as gloomy folk number, and over the course of six polished minutes, takes on elements of blues and soul. His voice acts as both the template and the instrument, adapting to the changes in style throughout. But then we get the laid back There Will Always Be a Way, a track as consistent as a swaying rocking chair, its chimes brightening the track, with Stirratts now soothing voice adding a mellow coating to another top track on the record.
While Stirratt plays around with several sounds both new and old, in the end, he never strays too far from his own sonic boundaries. You get this on The Swallows Of London Town with its Smiths-like guitar work for some fashionable irony before it settles back down to the band’s familiar pop-rock comfort zone. Those orchestral pieces found scattered on past records surface again and serve their function quite well, never going over the top, but still adding plenty of depth, bringing songs like Allow Me to life. It’s a slow-starter of a track, but once strings kick in at the half-way point, the tune brightens up. Its the last two minutes, however, that give you the best moment on this record–no–of their career. Yes, theyve played with string sections before, but its here that they really nail it down.
Finally, The Autumn Defense is taking risks. While Once Around is less consistent than past records, that ends up being a very good thing because the music feels much more adventurous and satisfying. With an album like this, The Autumn Defense finally gets to peek from under the shadow that has been cast over them from parallel years in “that other band”. Add in the plentiful high points, and Stirratt and Sansone have made their best album yet.