The Autumn Defense carve a niche beyond Wilco

Seasonal fortitude
By JONATHAN DONALDSON  |  November 2, 2010

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DIFFERENT VOICES “We’re proud of our work with those guys [Wilco],” says Pat Sansone (right, with John Stirratt). “But the Autumn Defense is very much our own thing.”

The South isn't really what comes to mind when we think of candy-sweet pop music. But according to the Autumn Defense's Pat Sansone, maybe it should be.

"Man, the South is the fertile crescent when it comes to music!" he says by phone from Chicago, where he and musical partner John Stirratt are setting off on a tour to support their fourth full-length, Once Around (Yep Roc Records). A Mississippi native, Sansone traces his roots back to the small but tightly knit Southern pop-music scene of the '80s, where, he recalls, everybody knew one another. "I remember John and I hanging out in New Orleans in the late '90s, and we found we had such similar taste in records and wanted to do the same things with orchestral pop."

For the Autumn Defense (who'll be at Great Scott next Thursday), the touchstones were Big Star and classic albums like Love's Forever Changes and the Zombies' Oddysey and Oracle. Not exactly the kind of music you think of hearing at a Biloxi rest stop. But Sansone and Stirratt don't share the kind of swagger and ennui that defined the brief musical partnership of Alex Chilton and Chris Bell. If they did, it's not likely they could have sustained their day jobs as full-time members of Wilco. Although they started making music together in the late '90s/early '00s, Stirratt is Wilco's founding bassist and the only other person aside from Jeff Tweedy to have been in the band since their mid-'90s origins. Sansone joined around 2004, and far from trumpeting Wilco's success, he stops short of even mentioning that he's a part of one of the biggest bands in America.

Would it be fair to file Autumn Defense albums in the Wilco section at the local record store? "I don't think so," says Sansone. "We're proud of our work with those guys, and everything is very collaborative with the new [Wilco] album that is getting under way. But the Autumn Defense is very much our own thing."

What would be fair is to suggest that the stability of Wilco gives the Autumn Defense the freedom to make their kind of pretty, sweet, easy pop music. To paraphrase the dearly departed Chilton, the Autumn Defense aren't anachronistic — they're just what sounds melodious to their ears. And given how proficient they are in the studio with their instruments (Sansone has produced retro-minded artists like Josh Rouse and the Clientele), they're free to chase the clouds of great '60s and '70s pop sounds as blissfully as they want to. "I know it sounds terribly cliché," says Sansone, "but I think this new record is our best one yet."

He's right — Once Around is a milkweed-soft distillation of yearning pop and down-tempo Laurel Canyon country rock. Some songs are more obvious in pointing to their forebears, like the Eagles pastiche "Tell Me What You Want." Others trickle across your memory with more subtlety — which is what the Autumn Defense do best. The path from A to B is never straight. "Back of My Mind" takes basic '70s-esque power pop and delicately swirls it with adventurous piano chords and a winding melody. It's a rock song and a music lesson all in one. "Step Easy" could be an acoustic ballad but for the quirky drum beat, the mellotron, and the marimba. And it works.

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