In his Pitchfork Music Festival coverage for today’s Tribune, onetime Wilco biographer Greg Kot wonders if the group’s headlining set this evening will offer a preview of a new album, their first since The Whole Love (2011). Last night, after his piece had been put to bed, Wilco released its 11th studio album, Star Wars, for free via its website, wilcoworld.net, providing a pretty clear answer that tonight’s set will include a bunch of new material. The album will remain available as a free download through August 13. The CD version of the album will be released on August 21, with the vinyl version to come on November 27.

I’ve only had a chance to listen to the album a couple of times—not enough for a band that creates music as richly layered as Wilco—but it sounds awfully good to me. Its 11 songs clock in at a succinct 34 minutes, and if there’s anything that defines the collection it’s a rather taut, even constricted feel in its intimate dynamic range. The performances are loose and the arrangements simple, favoring subtle group interplay over elaborate solo passages. The record opens with a wonderfully jarring instrumental called “EKG,” as brittle, clanging guitars careen and dive-bomb over a stuttering beat that sounds like a tribute to U.S. Maple. The music then moves toward more familiar turf, with Jeff Tweedy‘s vocals sounding better than ever. Nels Cline‘s lead guitar has never sounded more reined in—which isn’t to say he sounds conservative, but his sonic bursts of color are masterfully woven into the arrangements, rather than hitting like extended asides. On a tune like “The Joke Explained” Tweedy seems to channel vintage Bob Dylan, but the chugging groove and snaking guitars arrive from another planet, and such combinations of traditionalism and experimentation are all over the the album. Of course, I need to listen to it more, but it might be the band’s most immediate recording since its earliest days; yet rather than falling back on their roots, Wilco root Star Wars in stripped-down art-rock. The sudden appearance of this album certainly creates additional anticipation for tonight’s performance.

Today’s playlist:

Michael Francis Duch, Edges (+3DB)
Osie Johnson, The Happy Jazz of Osie Johnson (Bethlehem, Japan)
Freedom Family, Ayentsoo (Academy)
Erma Franklin, Super Soul Sister (Vampisoul)
Arnaldo Antunes, Disco (Radar)