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First Listen: The Autumn Defense, 'Fifth'

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.

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Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)