WILCO A.M. (Sire/Reprise)
Presenting a bundle of fine things for those of us (i.e. me and Peter!) entranced by the might of Wilcos second album "Being There". First up is a double re-issue of Uncle Tupelos second and third albums, Uncle Tupelo being the band that was co-captained by Jeff Tweedy (later of Wilco) and Jay Farrar (who went on to form Son Volt).
"Still Feel Gone", first released in 1991, suggests Uncle Tupelo were stamping their mark on the wide open spaces that separated Gram Parsons and Pearl Jam, with the formers country leanings and sentimentality tempered by the blundering power of the latter. It makes for a slightly awkward listen, the atmosphere not leavened by song titles such as "Gun", "Fall Down Easy", "Nothing", "Watch Me Fall", "Punch Drunk", "Cold Shoulder", "Discarded"...you get the picture that all is not sweetness and light here. The sensation of confusion is not helped by the fact that vocal duties are shared between Tweedy and Farrar: Jeffs singing here sounds a little bland compared to that of Jay, who has enough gravel in his larynx to carry this sort of thing off with greater conviction. The production - by Paul Q Kolderie and Sean Slade, veterans of the American alternative scene - does little to embellish the basic sound of drums and wires, save the muted fairground-like optigon closing to "If Thats Alright". Inveterate credit scavengers (such as myself!) may be interested to learn that Gary Louris of the Jayhawks helps out with guitar duties on three tracks.
The star guest quota is a little higher on "March 16-20, 1992", with David Barbe - later of Bob Moulds power trio Sugar - helping out with bass and engineering duties, R.E.M. alumnus John Keane playing pedal steel, banjo, guitar and bass and also helping with the engineering, and the genuinely famous Peter Buck in the producers chair.
Perhaps as a reaction to the inherent schizophrenia in their previous work, the band moved towards a more acoustic, folky sound on this album, apocalyptic Tom Joads for the late 20th Century. Once again the song titles tell much of the story, with arrangements of traditional fare such as "Coalminers", "Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down", "Lilli Schull", "Moonshiner" (as heard on Dylans mammoth "The Bootleg Series" box set) and the Louvin brothers "Atomic Power". Amidst all these prophecies of doom theres still the odd tender moment, such as the instrumental "Sandusky" and "Fatal Wound", which has an intro swiped from Tim Buckleys cover of Fred Neils "Dolphins".
Following the release of "March 16-20, 1992" Uncle Tupelo signed with Warner Bros, for whom they created the apparently aptly titled "Anodyne" in 1993 (currently unavailable on vinyl), before fractionating off into Wilco and Son Volt. This brings me neatly to "A.M.", Wilcos 1995 debut album, miraculously re-available (if you know where to look!) on red vinyl (black mark for the lack of a sleeve, which means you lose the curious cover photo of what looks like a hybrid between a portable radio and an elderly microwave oven). Ive only had time to give this a cursory two or three spins, so its too early to make definitive comments, but it seems to me that at this early stage Wilco were suffering from the same lack of direction that plagued Uncle Tupelo at times. Theres lots of jolly country-rock-boogie tunes, and the occasional plaintive ballad, but my current impression of "A.M." is of an album that chugs but doesnt soar. The Wilco of the time were competent and enjoyable enough, but theres little here to suggest the synthesis of the greatest moments of American popular music (e.g. The Band, The Byrds/Gram Parsons/Flying Burrito Brothers, Little Feat, Big Star, American Music Club, Red House Painters...pretty much everything outside grunge, heavy metal and New York art rock, effectively) that would soon come in the form of the magnificent "Being There". Some of the song titles look as if theyd be more at home on an A Flock Of Seagulls b-side or something - "Its Just That Simple", or "Thats Not The Issue", for example. But these are early days, and like most of the best things in life, Wilcos music is something that repays careful and continued attention.
UNCLE TUPELO Anodyne (Rhino/Sire)
Anodyne was Uncle Tupelos fourth and final album, their first to be released after taking the Warner Bros. dollar like underground hopefuls The Replacements, Hüsker Dü and R.E.M. before them. The Rhinofication process adds five extra tracks and an intelligent, informative booklet essay before wrapping the whole kit caboodle up in a digipak sleeve.
Despite signing to a major label the bands music hardly swells to stadium-strangling proportions here. If anything theres just the slightest surge in underlying confidence to this album, but otherwise it conforms to the established Uncle Tupelo blueprint of perfectly-pitched country rock, albeit with the dope smoke haze that surrounded antecedents such as The Flying Burrito Brothers replaced with sharp, Guthriesque social commentary. Little wonder, then, that mainstay Jeff Tweedys next band, Wilco, would be selected to collaborate with Billy Bragg on setting previously unheard Woody lyrics to music via the Mermaid Avenue project.
Highlights here include Acuff-Rose, Tweedys sweet testament to the healing powers of song, and his disillusioned music industry expose Weve Been Had, whilst Fifteen Keys is almost the stereotypical Jay Farrar tune. Generally, though, Uncle Tupelos own songwriters are more concerned with honesty and integrity than killer hooks and big choruses. Its the cover versions that emerge as this discs more memorable moments, for an example an interpretation of Doug Sahms Give Back The Key To My Heart graced by the composers own vocals and guitar. Hidden amidst the extra tracks is a fabulous Joe Ely-assisted recording of Waylon Jennings Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?, which neatly captures the whole No Depression scenes raison detre. Almost as great are some live recordings made in the company of Bottle Rocket Brian Henneman: Truck Drivin Man careers wildly and gloriously out of control, and Suzy Q is sweaty, feedback-strafed swamp rock.
This latest reissue arguably presents Anodyne in the most favourable and appealing light yet, although its somewhat ironic that what makes the package great only highlights the shortcomings of the original album.
Billy Bragg & Wilco