Side projects often provide a chance to take wild left turns; to indulge a desire to experiment outside the formulas dictated by a musician's primary creative outlet. For The Autumn Defense — which features bassist John Stirratt and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone, both of Wilco — it's actually a chance to pursue a narrower focus. Where Wilco sprawls, The Autumn Defense drills down to a sweetly straightforward style of classic pop and rock.
That simplicity doesn't mean the work is tossed off, or that The Autumn Defense isn't a top-of-mind concern for its members. Fifth is, not surprisingly, the band's fifth album in a career dating all the way back to 1999, and its members have found their own voice within the project — one that wouldn't be alien to fans of Wilco's gentler side. Warm and bittersweet, the timeless pop songs on Fifth have an agreeable brightness to them; they can seem unassuming, but they also burrow under the skin over time.
Stirratt and Sansone's contributions to Wilco are a bit of a red herring when assessing The Autumn Defense; if anything, Sansone's work with Josh Rouse actually provides a sturdier reference point. As tempting as it may be to amplify and overindulge in the pursuit of attention, all three musicians understand the value in crafting a low-key charm offensive. Fifth soothes more than it stuns, which isn't so bad for listeners looking to calm their nerves.