Wilco: Being There (1996)


Being There
1996; Reprise Records

My Rating: 10/10

It’s difficult to overemphasize the importance and significance of BEING THERE. It is THE place to start for anyone new to non-CMT Country music. While there are plenty of great alt-country  records out there, and some might even be more consistent and concise at delivering on Gram Parson’s deposit of Cosmic Americana, BEING THERE ties in so many other influences that it transcends the genre, and hints at greater possibilities.

From the sad and swaying “Far Far Away” to the optimistic “What’s The World Got In Store”, Tweedy covers all of the requisite emotional bases, but it’s in going the extra mile on tracks like “Misunderstood” and “Sunken Treasure” that Tweedy delivers grand artistry, transforming the lives of suburban midwesterners into cinematic epics. Additionally, Tweedy proves that Wilco is capable of power-pop greatness with “Monday”, “Outta Site” and “I Got You (At the End of the Century”, roadhouse swagger  with “Forget The Flowers” and “Someday Soon”, teary-eyed nostalgia with “The Lonely One” and “Say You Miss Me”, and classic rock throwbacks  with “Hotel Arizona”. But it’s not just the songs themselves that make BEING THERE stand out – it’s all about the unpolished edges. From the numerous shouts of “Nothing!” in “Misunderstood” to the seamless segue of “Red-Eyed and Blue” into “I Got You (At the End of the Century)”, BEING THERE glories in the journey of making an album. 

That message – the experience of being there – eminates from both the songs AND the album artwork, which consists purely of photographs from the recordings sessions. Tweedy invites the listener to BE THERE with the band as they make a record, to be uplifted, moved, and changed, and to come away wanting to experience it all over again. In this, Wilco seems to have captured the essence of alt-country.

But for Wilco, after being lauded for this record, it wasn’t enough to rest on the laurels of making an instant classic. With a masterpiece under their belts, it was time to push the boundaries of the genre they had helped create.

News Bits: Pearl Jam’s new song on Conan last night

Plenty of people are panning Conan’s debut as the host of the Tonight Show last night (whatever, I’m just glad he’s back on the air), but I wanted to point out that the song Pearl Jam debuted last night totally rocked. Looking forward to hearing a recorded version, and for that matter, the whole album.

Wilco: AM (1995)


Reprise Records; 1995

My Rating: 4/10

As someone who thinks about such things, it’s remarkable to me just how much Wilco’s recording history seems to mirror that of Radiohead. Nowhere is that more evident than with these bands’ debut albums. Radiohead’s PABLO HONEY is a picture of a band learning how to walk, searching for their place in the alternative pantheon, and Wilco’s AM is similarly bland and artistically lacking. While a few tracks do stand out, such as the lead-off power pop of “I Must Be High” and the radio ready “Boxful of Letters”, overall the album doesn’t deliver in the way one would expect Wilco’s debut to deliver. It’s really not worth spending too much time on AM, as this was almost a completely different band at the time. But much like your old home videos, it’s interesting to look back and see just how far they’ve come. Wasn’t it cute when John Stirratt took the lead vocal duties on “It’s Just That Simple” for the first and only time in Wilco history?

The great thing is that, unlike Radiohead, Wilco has never been so estranged from its awkward early years that it refuses to play any of the tunes from the first record live. On the contrary, they seem to be more at home with these songs as the years go by, which is great because the aforementioned “I Must Be High” is a great live tune.

These are pretty happy songs for the most part, even the sad ones, and someone somewhere once said don’t despise the day of small beginnings. Therefore, I’ll salute AM as a great proto-debut, the record where one of my favorite bands cut its teeth on a developing new sound.

Worth checking out for any Wilco devotee.

Wilco: The Story So Far


wilco liveWilco was one of two bands formed out of alt-country trailblazers Uncle Tupelo. After a long falling out between alternating frontmen Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy, Farrar formed Son Volt and Tweedy formed Wilco in the early 90’s. To listen now to Uncle Tupelo recordings seems to reveal something of a dichotomy between the two. Tweedy was McCartney to Farrar’s Lennon. Where Farrar’s tracks always seemed to be the dark heart of Uncle Tupelo’s albums, Tweedy would interject some degree of levity with his tracks. Indeed, when you listen to the debut albums from the post-Tupelo acts, Farrar seems destined to carry artistic torch of alt-country straight into the 21st century. TRACE, Son Volt’s 1996 debut, is as good a debut as your likely to find from any rock band. On the other hand, AM, Wilco’s 1995 debut, comes off a bit too light, as if Tweedy were trying a little too hard to make a radio-friendly record. With the stage set, it looked like Farrar was ready to leave Tweedy in the dust with his post-Tupelo career.

But in 1997, Wilco dropped BEING THERE, a transcendent double-album that seemed to wind through the back roads of the midwest. BEING THERE is hands-down the standard for alt-country records. It was so good that Nora Guthrie, daughter of folk legend Woody Guthrie, asked the band to team with England’s BILLY BRAGG in accompanying an extensive back catalog of her father’s lyrics. The resulting albums, MERMAID AVENUE and MERMAID AVENUE VOLUME 2, both helped to cement Wilco’s status as alt-country torch-bearers. At the same time, Son Volt dropped two subsequent albums that seemed to lack the inspiration of TRACE. Son Volt gradually faded from the limelight, while Wilco seemed poised to crossover into other territory with 1999’s SUMMERTEETH. SUMMERTEETH broadened the band’s musical horizons, incorporating Wall of sound dynamics with power pop songwriting. With SUMMERTEETH, it was clear that Wilco was moving away from, or at least refusing to be held to, the genre of alt-country.

2001’s YANKEE HOTEL FOXTROT represented such a departure from the band’s roots that they were fired from their record label before its release, a move that has proved to be one of the most short-sighted in the history of recorded music. Wilco quickly rebounded and released the album which was heralded by many as a masterpiece. The band somehow managed to incorporate experimental elements with their roots and produce a record that was almost universally lauded as one of the best records of 2001. At the same time though, the band seemed to be going through members faster than they could find new ones, and Tweedy was ailing from stomach pains and addictions. The result of this tumultuous period was 2005’s A GHOST IS BORN. It was during the touring for that record that Wilco’s lineup finally managed to stabilize in the form of a six-piece. This lineup, consisting of Tweedy, bassist John Stiratt (the only other member of Wilco’s original lineup), drummer Glenn Kotche, guitarist Nels Cline, and utility players Pat Sansone and Mikael Jorgensen, released the 2006 live album KICKING TELEVISION. KICKING TELEVISION achieved the remarkable feat for a live record of actually being a great record, and Wilco quickly garnered a reputation as one of the best live bands anywhere.

It was this lineup that recorded the back to basics powerhouse SKY BLUE SKY in 2007. Though that record raised eyebrows at first, it quickly proved to be a far more enjoyable and solid record than at first glance, and proved that Tweedy and Wilco have finally arrived as perhaps the best American band of the 21st century.

Jeff-Wilco1At this point, it seems Wilco can do no wrong. If not America’s greatest band, they are at the very least America’s version of Radiohead, a band that somehow manages to combine musical and experimental depth with widespread appeal and excellent songcraft. As of this writing, they are poised to deliver their seventh studio album, the not quite self-titled WILCO (THE ALBUM). Expectations are high, and this is purely because Wilco has proven that they are a band that can deliver.

News Bits: eMusic to add Sony catalog

Thanks to Glorious Noise for the heads up on this one.

Looks like the internet’s corner record shop is going big time. And my gut tells me it’s bad news for the company and its core customers.

While they will be adding a whole slew of great artists from Sony’s vaults (Springsteen, Pearl Jam, Modest Mouse, Michael Jackson, and the Foo Fighters to name a few), but it’s all going to come with a cost. Right now, I get 50 downloads a month at $14.99. I have been able to download so much great music this way that I was quickly becoming an emusic loyalist.  But as of July, I’ll only be getting 37 downloads for the same price. Sure, that’s  still less than half of what I’d pay for a track anywhere else (40.5 cents to be exact), but really it just feels like I’m losing 13 tracks a month.

The upside is of course the ability to download tracks by these artists at the much lower price, and I suspect that this will allow eMusic to cut into the market share of (b)I(g)Tunes, but I have a really bad feeling that this will not end well for eMusic. I suppose if eMusic manages to force competitors down to 50 cents a track over the longhaul then they’ve accomplished something pretty special, but that seems incredibly unlikely to me.

What seems much more likely is that eMusic will slowly homogenize with the rest of the industry and (a) be bought out in the next few years or (b) become just like everyone else. I just can’t help but feel they are abandoning their niche, and that there is no possible way for this to end well for the obsessive music fan, except that maybe the slowly rising prices will force us all to get a life. : (

For the time being, I’ll capitalize on what I can and download a whole bunch of great music from Sony’s extensive catalog. eMusic is still the best legal mp3 site on the web. But all in all, this feels like a really bad day.