John Stirratt, longtime member of Wilco and formerly of Uncle Tupelo, must not have gotten the memo. Side projects are not supposed to be good, let alone great. But the second album, Circles from his project the Autumn Defense is exactly that.
Partnering once again with collaborator and fellow troubadour Pat Sansone, the duo has produced a collection of ornately rendered pop miniatures that combine delicate vocal harmonies -- ranging from Brian Wilson's Pet Sounds aesthetic to the Byrds alum Gene Clark's sunny acoustics -- with well-placed Hammond organs and intricate string and horn arrangements.
"The Answer," an ethereal if slightly downtrodden love song, looks for solutions in the deserted corridors of Simon and Garfunkel's "Scarborough Fair"; "The Sun in California" radiates lush, Everly Brothers-style soul. And the keeper, "Tuesday Morning," stands strong despite borrowing more than a few bars from the Spinners' hackneyed karaoke classic "Could It Be I'm Falling in Love?"
But, Circles's best quality rests in its stellar production value. Atmospheric sounds are flowered about sparingly and with great effect, sowing a perfect bed from which Stirratt's and Sansone's harmonies are allowed to flourish. "Silence," the album's opening track, brings together Wilco-affected static, plaintive chimes and mallet-brushed snares to point Sansone's lovely ballad right through the heart and deep into the soul.
It takes a fine musical ear to make such a well-structured album sound this effortless and organic. And John Stirratt -- Wilco work notwithstanding -- proves he is more than up to the task.
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