Fans of Uncle Tupelo liked Jeff Tweedy but considered Jay Farrar the band’s real talent. In that context, the debut by Wilco is a surprisingly substantive exposition of smart songcraft, the work of a determined and confident creative force. Backed on A.M. by remnants of Tupelo (drummer Ken Coomer, bassist John Stirratt and multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston) and using Bottle Rockets leader (and former Tupelo guitar tech) Brian Henneman as lead guitarist (plus future Dixie Chicks’ mastermind and dad Lloyd Maines on pedal steel), Tweedy delivers a pair of tuneful wonders — the blithe “I Must Be High” and “Box Full of Letters,” a farewell and olive branch offering to Farrar — that take the Uncle Tupelo country-rock fusion further into the realm of pop. But that’s evidently not his only idea for Wilco. While dry and dusty in spots and sweetly intimate in others, the album betrays Tweedy’s familiarity with both Paul Westerberg and the Rolling Stones’ twangy era from Let It Bleed to Exile on Main Street, making for a blur of intentions and loyalties that has only increased geometrically as Wilco has repeatedly defied expectations placed in its path.
A.M. was only the dawn of a saga that has taken Tweedy — and his increasingly subordinate band — to an exalted position at the forefront of “no depression” roots rock Americana and the center of a farcical label fiasco. At times, the actual content of Wilco’s records has been all but buried in unquestioning critical acclamation and unrealistic enthusiasm for what the group appears to be. Paradoxically, Wilco is both seriously talented and wildly over-rated.
Tweedy revealed the scale of his ambition on the band’s self-produced two-disc Being There — 18 new originals, about half of which could easily have not been there. The addition of permanent guitarist-keyboardist Jay Bennett (ex-Titanic Love Affair) in place of Henneman expanded Wilco’s sonic palette here. So horns and honking slide guitar spark up “Monday,” the bitchy “Misunderstood” ends in blasts of rhythmic noise, “Someday Soon” goes honkytonkin’ and the wonderful “Outta Mind (Outta Sight)” — the disc-two rendering of a tune called “Outtasite (Outta Mind)” on the first — glows with modestly Spectorized Beach Boys production extravagance. The rollicking “I Got You (At the End of the Century)” puts all the pieces together perfectly, but the raucous finale, “Dreamer in My Dreams,” is a virtual rewrite of the Stones’ “Country Honk” and too much of Being There has been done before and better by others — solemn acoustic (or rote country) ballads with generic melodies and no distinguishing features.
Johnston’s departure left Wilco a compact quartet on Summerteeth, another eclectic defense against pigenonholing. Any remaining debt to alt-country is left behind as Tweedy picks up Westerberg’s hair shirt and John Lennon’s househusbandry to the accompaniment of Bennett’s kitchen sink of synthesizers, timpani, bells, baritone guitar, banjo, e-bow, etc. The songs are generally well formed, although Tweedy remains a middling tunesmith only occasionally able to whip up an enduring hook. (In light of Being There, less is definitely more here.) Since he’s also not much of a singer, the most enticing aspect of Summerteeth is his lyrics, which swing poetically and affectingly at love — romantic, parental, failed, absent, untended, hopeful, happy. The highlights of a modestly solid collection are “She’s a Jar,” “I’m Always in Love,” the Beatlesque “Nothing’severgonnastandinmyway (again)” and “ELT,” which is an acronym for “every little thing” and undoubtedly a joke on Michael Jackson’s “PYT.”
What came next was Wilco’s unexpected (and unexpectedly redemptive) Waterloo at the hands of Reprise Records, whose attempt to interrupt a creative lifeforce with crass commercial concerns led them to another Warner Music division, which belatedly released the album Reprise rejected, much to the band’s fiscal and public-relations benefit. (The Sundazed issue is on vinyl.) Wilco began the self-produced Yankee Hotel Foxtrot as a quintet with newly added guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Leroy Bach (and drummer Glenn Kotche taking over for Coomer) but completed it as a quartet when Tweedy pushed Bennett out of the fold. As detailed in a nicely shot but half-baked documentary film, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, the group’s goal for the album was to extend the sonic experimentation of Summerteeth. They eventually enlisted producer and Sonic Youth adjunct Jim O’Rourke to aid in the mixdown of this self-conscious assemblage of strings, horns and surprising rhythms to feedback, noise and synthesizers. To the band’s credit, the audio novelties threaded into Yankee Hotel Foxtrot sound far less gimmicky or intrusive than they might have, but neither does the window dressing completely disguise the essential ordinariness of another set of acoustic guitar plaints that either lay there inert or all but disappear into the shifting audio landscape. “Ashes of American Flags” combines the band’s impulses toward sensitive lyricism and oddball accompaniment to the best effect here, and “Reservations” is an aptly elegiac finale. But the catchy “Kamera” and “I’m the Man Who Loves You” (which ends badly) both need more seasoning; conversely, aping Pavement (on “Heavy Metal Drummer”) is an amusing but worthless parlor trick. Although handsomely rendered, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” the self-critical love song that begins the disc, suffers from arrhythmic lines like “What was I thinking when I let go of you” and doesn’t so much end as give way to mild cacophony. More time spent in the songwriting lab might have yielded material more suitable to the evident studio effort invested and brought Wilco closer to making a truly great album.
The two Mermaid Avenue albums are Wilco’s spirited collaboration with Billy Bragg in the righteous effort to bring some of Woody Guthrie’s unreleased compositions to recorded light, a task which actually involved writing music for a cache of lyrics the late folksinger left behind. Chelsea Walls is Tweedy’s score (plus a couple of Wilco songs, a John Lennon cover by Jimmy Scott and a few other items) to the 2001 Ethan Hawke film of the same name.
To escape the Tweedy vs. Bennett stress of the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot sessions, Tweedy, Kotche and O’Rourke began work on a side project. Loose Fur, a shaggy dog affair split between gently eccentric pop songs and low-key experimentation, is a minor item but not without its charms. The two extended cuts which open the album, Tweedy’s “Laminated Cat” and O’Rourke’s “Elegant Transaction,” are the best things here. The two songs take their time unfolding into intricate, mildly enchanting grooves which combine krautrock, soft jazz and alt-country. Nothing else on the album is as striking, and too much of it fades into an unmemorable jumble.
On A Ghost Is Born, Tweedy buys into his own hype. Whatever its flaws, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot sounded like a band honestly trying to expand its horizons and try some new things. A Ghost Is Born sounds like a small town kid desperate to live up to his newfound status as the Major Artist of His Generation attempting to create a Major Work of Art. The lurking self-indulgence reaches its nadir on the infamous 15 minutes of droning noise which closes out “Less Than You Think.” Tweedy must have imaginged that the piece made some sort of grand statement, but there’s no guessing what that statement might be, except that adulation has its pitfalls. The very long “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” sounds awesome and innovative to anyone who’s never heard of NEU!, derivative (but still enjoyable) to anyone who has. In light of Tweedy’s obvious artistic aspirations on the “experimental” tracks, the shorter, more straightforward songs which make up the majority of the album feel like inconsequential filler, although several — most notably “Hummingbird” — are quite good. A Ghost Is Born is a textbook example of an album created to fulfill expectations the band doesn’t necessarily share. Waiting for the backlash…