Sun-Tanned Pop

It may not even technically be spring yet, but it's time for some Autumn Defense

John Stirratt and Pat Sansone took a long time making their gorgeous, Baroque-pop Circles. Forced to fit songwriting, recording and production around Sansone's producer responsibilities and Stirratt's touring schedule in support of Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Circles follows the pair's much-less cohesive debut, The Green Hour, by a little more than two years.

Issued on Stirratt's own Broadmoor label, Green Hour went nowhere, but Circles has received much more attention, owing at least in part to Wilco's mounting critical acclaim. The timing and destiny of the next Autumn Defense record is harder to predict; Wilco has just announced that Sansone will join its next tour, replacing Leroy Bach. (Insert your own revolving-door witticism here.) Among other things, that means that within six weeks of their March 15 Autumn Defense performance at Plush, they'll be back in Tucson with Wilco, playing April 29 at the Rialto.

When it rains, it pours.

Reached by phone in their tour van somewhere in Pennsylvania, Stirratt and Sansone were enthusiastic about their swing through Tucson and the West Coast on their way to the South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin.

"I'm looking forward to being in some nicer weather than what I've been experiencing for the past few months," New Yorker Sansone says, adding "I'm definitely looking forward to being back in California ... and, too, there's kind of a California spirit about a lot of the record, so I think it'll be nice to be in that place performing (it)."

Circles' lush, sun-tanned pop, loaded with pretty, earthy harmonies, is perhaps unique at the moment, even in California. It's a sound that's been more or less AWOL since the '60s, an era that figures prominently in Sansone's and Stirratt's own references, in their lyrics as well as their arrangements. Those references include movies (Parallax View) and bands (Zombies, Big Star), but if you really want to start a conversation, ask either of them about Love's Forever Changes, the 1968 release by the brilliant but short-lived L.A. band that fused psychedelia to light pop and Stones' rock, with the occasional Latin-esque flourish.

"With Love's Forever Changes, there's a real intensity, and it's very elegant," says Stirratt. "It's like a dignified paranoia. Yeah, there's a troubling element to some of the lyrics, a longing, some sort of ennui or something that doesn't underscore but kind of juxtaposes the nice progressions and the dreaminess. I think a lot of records from that era kind of do that, and a lot of movies as well.

"We could never reach as high as Forever Changes. That's like the holy grail or that, but a sort of Joan Didion sort of California--that sort of apocalyptic kind of California vision or something--there is a little bit of an ominous side to some of the things we write."

The '60s influence extends even to the production.

"Obviously we don't have the money that Wilco has to put into a record," says Stirratt, "and (Circles) was an attempt ... like listening to my favorite records--you could tell those were two-week records, or week-and-a-half records, you know? Even higher-produced records. It was a quick process; it was more of a snapshot of a moment in time. Being able to do Wilco and have a grand project, the kind of quest that each record turns into, it's nice to have something that's a little more off the cuff."

The unity of Stirratt's and Sansone's musical vision is a product of a friendship that extends back to the Mississippi rock scene of the late '80s. The two met in college, but lost touch somewhat while Stirratt and his twin sister, Laurie, pursued a musical career. With songwriter and guitarist Cary Hudson, the Stirratts formed the Hilltops, a seminal roots-punk band that frequently opened for Uncle Tupelo. Jeff Tweedy switched from bass to guitar for that band's swan song, Anodyne, so UT tapped Stirratt to fill in. Stirratt then followed Tweedy into Wilco when Jay Farrar formed Son Volt. Laurie Stirratt and Cary Hudson, meanwhile, formed Blue Mountain. There, you have half the genesis of No Depression.

Stirratt and Sansone renewed their friendship when both were living in New Orleans after Wilco released the Billy Bragg-Woody Guthrie collaboration, Mermaid Avenue.

"It was around the spring of 1999; we started recording our first record," Sansone says. "As we started hanging out some, we realized we were listening to a lot of the same records at the same time and were developing similar tastes in music. We'd sit around and play music and sing songs, and we sort of realized we should do our own thing. John had a bunch of songs that he had been writing and I helped finish a few. It happened very organically, kind of really came out of just being music fans."

The chief difference between Circles and The Green Hour is the much greater role Sansone plays, contributing both songs and lead vocals. Circles also has a greater emphasis on vocal harmonies. Says Stirratt, "Pat is the master arranger; he has a really naturally great voice. He's a great harmony singer. He can do everything! We wanted to sing more close harmony, because it was something we didn't really do on the first record."

Stirratt and Sansone swap guitars and bass as well as vocal leads (Sansone also contributes keyboards), but both seemed especially pleased to be traveling with a full complement of players.

"I think the songs are becoming stronger and maybe a little bigger on the road," says Stirratt. "We've had the seven-piece out for a lot of these dates. Even with the five-piece, it's plenty of sound, but with the seven-piece, it's huge, and you can really play the record note for note--keyboards, pedal steel, horns, everything. It's been fun to have all the textures on the record to do in a live set."

In Tucson, the band will include New York bassist Morgan Taylor, Wilco and Freakwater alum Bob Egan on pedal steel and Circles principals Greg Wiz on drums, Steve Tyska on baritone sax and trumpet and Nate Walcott on trumpet and flugelhorn. Jokes Stirratt, "It will be our kind of little version of the mariachi experience."

Stirratt promises some surprises that won't cleave entirely to the record.

"We do a handful of some of our favorite covers. We've been doing Tim Hardin's 'Misty Roses,' and a Left Banke tune, 'Pretty Ballerina.' There are a couple of rockers at the end," he adds, "but I don't want to give it all away."

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