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Main Category: Pop Rock
Also applicable: Folk Rock, Roots Rock, Lush Pop
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A. M.

Year Of Release: 1995
Overall rating =

I like me some REAL LOUD DRUMS with my wussy country-rock, sure I do.


Track listing: 1) I Must Be High; 2) Casino Queen; 3) Box Full Of Letters; 4) Shouldn't Be Ashamed; 5) Pick Up The Change; 6) I Thought I Held You; 7) That's Not The Issue; 8) It's Not That Simple; 9) Should've Been In Love; 10) Passenger Side; 11) Dash 7; 12) Blue Eyed Soul; 13) Too Far Apart.

And yes, REAL LOUD DRUMS are the first thing that you get when you push play. There they go, ripping through the fragile covering of my worn-out old speakers again. Damn. There goes another pair. But then again, you probably have to sacrifice something if you want to make roots-rock palatable for the Nirvana generation, and besides, it's never late to upgrade your speakers.

Unlike later Wilco albums, A. M. has no ambitions whatsoever. It does, however, have an aspiration, and that is establish Jeff Tweedy, fresh out of his former co-project with Jay Farrar, as the kind of dude that can write, record, and be responsible for an album consisting of good songs that a morally healthy, broad-horizon-type audience could blast out of their cars without having to switch to Classic Rock radio stations. It's the same kind of aspiration that used to fuel Tom Petty's motor in the past, and with talented songwriters, it usually paid off. Wilco are no exception. As they progressively got "bigger", so did A. M. become progressively "smaller", until even the band's biggest promoters began referring to it sort of as a preliminary footnote.

Time to speak up in defense of the humble man, I guess. I dig this album a lot. Uncle Tupelo were at one time watched over by the ever-present Peter Buck, and R.E.M. influences were all over the place, but this is no R.E.M.-style introspective folk rock. It's big, crude, broadly splattered clumsy goliath songs, with dumb, massive, pancake-shaped hooks, most of which are so obvious it makes you wanna scream, "OHMYGOD! Did he just put that hook in? Or didn't he? Somebody fuckin' pinch me already!" Like 'I Must Be High' - it moves in brisk sequences of four-syllable phrases ('I must be high, to say goodbye, bye bye bye", etc.) that would probably cause a heart attack for every respectable Tin Pan Alley representative.

But I'm wooed - wooed by the massive energy of this thing, the unfakeable passion that inhabits these Elephant-Man melodies. Loud drums and porky power chords often mask the lack of real substance, but not in this case. The Uncle Tupelo years are paying off in that Tweedy's now a seasoned professional, well aware that two notes strung together don't make a song if you don't force them to make a song. Look at how aptly he handles stuff like 'Box Full Of Letters'. His is not a great voice, but he makes it inexpendable for the hook power of the verses: the 'wish I had a lot of ANswers' line, the one with a slight intonation change from the previous verse, sort of reverses the perspective with a single twist. Sure it doesn't always work: a few seconds later I already find the 'you'll come back again and I'll still be your friend' line a little too forced, as if he just got tired of looking for a suitable middle-eight and left the job half-finished. But it works frequently enough to make most of the songs well worth your time, mind, body, and soul.

Speaking of soul, one of the most understated numbers on here is called 'Blue-Eyed Soul'. Not everybody notices it because it's so near the end, but it's very much of a "program statement", a key moment in this album and, I'd say, the overall development of Wilco themselves and Wilco-related music as well. It's the first time I've encountered somebody making a pun on the term itself, riding on the interpretation of 'soul' as 'spirit', on one hand, and 'musical genre', on the other, but it goes beyond straightforward pun level - it's a bold, intentionally simplistic, idealistic even, I guess, attack on cynicism and the prevailing post-modern attitude. 'You've got a blue-eyed soul, and if you don't let it show, it'll leave you, you won't even know'. Now me, I'm sitting fine and dandy with the "soulless music" of today, especially since so much of what is trying to pass for "soulful" music is such awful bullshit, but I'm all for statements like these myself, from time to time, and this song resonates with me like nothing else. Of course, it probably wouldn't resonate all that well were it crappily written, but it isn't. I'll be touching upon Tweedy's chameleonism more a little later, but, running ahead, 'Blue-Eyed Soul' is a spot-on Lou Reed imitation, with minimalistic, perfectly timed Coney Island Baby-shape electric country guitars and a Lou-like melancholic mumble (well, Lou's mumble would be a little hoarser, but give Tweedy a couple more decades, and he'll catch up on that, I'm sure). All that's needed is a little extra feedback, but let a guy play clean if he wants to. We get feedback a-plenty these days anyway.

And, true to the spirit of the song, nothing on here plays in the post-modern way. All the spiritual values are taken straight from years long gone by, and where there's humour, it's "real" humour, not some kind of hypertextual caricature. If a song like 'Passenger Side' were to fall into the hands of Ween or even They Might Be Giants, it would have turned into a smart/giggly accumulation of lyrical and musical cliches, with the double aim of entertaining the listener and making him realize just how clever and knowledgeable these fellas are. With Wilco, it's just a song about drunk driving. No, wait. It's more than that - it's a song that tackles a drunk driving situation and makes you care about it, using the simplest of means. Lyrics are minimal, hooks, as usual, are crude, melody is generic mid-tempo country-rock. Disarming minimalism with no chance of big commercial success whatsoever.

So it's no big surprise when yet another one of Tweedy's constant "half imitations, half tributes" turns out to be so similar to the style of Neil Young, the world's biggest dirty-jeans idealist to date. 'Shouldn't Be Ashamed' is a perfect summarisation of Neil's style circa Ragged Glory, maybe a wee bit less rough but with the same wild-and-yet-controlled feedback outbursts and a couple riffs that seem almost lifted off tracks like 'Love And Only Love'. The dirty, spontaneous sound sort of clashes wildly with the far cleaner remainder of the album, but if I know anything about anything, it's actually closer to Tweedy's own punkish spirit than the self-imposed Uncle Tupelo-related restrained country rock sounds. And besides, being the old fart that I am, I'd much rather hear a catchy Neil Young tribute than a generic Pearl Jam stylisation. (And ain't it cool how the Young guitar tone suddenly emerges at around 1:15 into the song? You spend the first minute thinking 'now wait a minute, who used to write cool music like that?' and then you get a direct, unswerving answer).

Another real good one is 'Casino Queen'. How come nobody rocks like that any more? Whenever I read about that song, I hit the 'Rolling Stones' mention, but that's probably just because the title reminds people of 'Casino Boogie' and 'Little Queenie' at the same time (okay, so the latter is Chuck, but Chuck Berry and the Rolling Stones are pretty much the same thing, complementarily distributed by time periods). It's brawny, swaggery pub rock with zero percent subtlety, not the kind of thing the Stones were really famous for. But who cares when it gets you going so well? The mammoth mid-tempo stomp, the honky tonk fiddle, the dumb, memorable riffs, the give-it-yer-all guitar solo (okay, Berry licks here), the drunken cheering, the eerily authentic lyrics ('I've been gambling like a friend on your tables so green' - classy!), it's so hundred percent authentic without necessarily sounding retro - because of superior production values, and yes, THE BIG BIG DRUMS.

I mean, you just gotta give that guy his due. He's falling back on age-old formulas, it takes the devil's work to introduce new twists, and yet he does. 'That's Not The Issue' may sound like the same old tired fast country shit to you, but you don't always get the guitar and the banjo playing off each other in the same speedily-picked way on same old tired fast country shit. And that little frightening four-chord "interlude" riff that pops up in between verses - where does that come from? He wasn't obliged to put that stuff in there, you know, yet he did, and it gives the song extra flavour. Or the "weeping" chord after all the "so longs" in 'Too Far Apart' - pretty, isn't it?

I wouldn't say that the album is totally consistent. 'Dash 7' is a pretty ballad, and it manages to stand out from the rest due to being a bit darker, lonesomer, and more sparsely arranged than the rest, but there's something that prevents it from going any higher than that (maybe the lack of a distinctive vocal hook?). John Stirrat's lonely contribution, 'It's Not That Simple', shows that quod licet bovi, non licet Iovi, which is to say, Tweedy does Lou Reed and Neil Young far more justice than this guy does Gram Parsons. A couple other songs are also "minor". But does that matter? Nopity-nope. This whole album's "minor" - not as in "minor key", but as in "minor status". With the emotional shields lowered down and no far-reaching ambitions in sight, it can allow itself to be a bit inconsistent. The important thing is that it's got a heart all its own.



Year Of Release: 1996
Overall rating =

Sometimes being sincere over nineteen tracks worth o' material really pays off, you know.

Best song: no, no, does not compute at all.

Track listing: CD I: 1) Misunderstood; 2) Far Far Away; 3) Monday; 4) Outta Sight (Outta Mind); 5) Forget The Flowers; 6) Red-Eyed And Blue; 7) I Got You (At The End Of The Century); 8) What's The World Got In Store; 9) Hotel Arizona; 10) Say You Miss Me.

CD II: 1) Sunken Treasure; 2) Someday Soon; 3) Outta Mind (Outta Sight); 4) Someone Else's Song; 5) Kingpin; 6) (Was I) In Your Dreams; 7) Why Would You Wanna Live; 8) The Lonely 1; 9) Dreamer In My Dreams.

As far as I know, Being There was sold for the price of one CD, despite the package actually containing two discs; so much for any possible 'marketing ploy' accusations. The situation becomes ca-wazily more bizarre, though, when you realise that the overall length of both is exactly 77:33, which is, I think, quite an adequate amount of musico-minutes for an enhanced CD; also, considering that a few of these songs could have easily been chopped and sliced a wee bit, it wouldn't have been difficult to squeeze it all onto a regular length CD either.

So what's the proper, logically consistent, Poirot-endorsed answer to this conundrum? Why, just that Wilco wanted to have an official "double album" under their belt. Because, face it, a "double album", unlike, say, a double album proper with no quotation marks around it, is so much more than just a double album with no quotation marks around it. It's something that's supposed to be broad in scope, daring in ambitiousness, and justified in talent. Also, more often than not, it's supposed to be a wink-wink hint-hint at the good old days when "double albums" were so common, not just because they hadn't yet invented CD technologies, but also because there, like, was so much more to say... uh-oh, Old Man Grumble headed this way. Not good. Change channels.

Being There is not genius. It aims at much more than A.M., but not that much more. Jeff Tweedy was a pretty good songwriter - still is, but it's not like he's grown himself a new head to be responsible for two CDs worth of music. The arrangements are generally more complex and the production more intricate, but who fucking cares. However, to use Jeff's own words from the past, 'that's not the issue'. The issue is that Wilco, for all their potential - but only potential - mediocrity, have come out with an album that's consistently gee-ow-ow-dee from first track to last. And that's the most important thing about "double albums", quotation marks or not: just for how long can they hold our attention? Being There holds mine for as long as it runs.

Individually, very few of these songs hold up as self-sufficient masterpieces. A few of them do; a few more pretend to do; most don't even try. Nobody, I'm sure, will hear 'Far Far Away' and go bonkers over how Jeff Tweedy does for country-rock basics the same thing that Michael Jackson did for underage kids. (I, of course, mean "making the world pay more attention to them" - what did you think?). At best, they will hear it and say 'hey, isn't that cute how that guy does his little Jerry Garcia thing?'. (And I do say at best because it took me a sleepless three weeks to figure out who those vocal stylistics on the 'might be shining on you tonight' line remind me of exactly). And then it's Radiohead all over again.

But the miracle of Being There is how, just by having nineteen non-ugly, non-suck, non-cheese, non-corn, non-non-catchy tunes assembled in one place, you end up with something so much more powerful than nineteen isolated entities. It's almost as if Jeff Tweedy split his soul into nineteen equal parts - nobody wants a 1/19th part of anybody's soul, you know. And in a way, I'd rather have a big whole consisting of nineteen partly-soulful entities than, say, nine fully-soulful entities meshed in with ten silly useless filler parts.

Another part of Being There's charm is its transitional character. The good transitional character, one that successfully merges the old with the new instead of neglecting the old while still not fully mastering the new. No, Tweedy does not move away from his alt-country-rock heritage; he expands upon that heritage by merging it with other influences, primarily guitar-based "power-pop" and lush piano-based "art-pop" or whatever other labels I've forgotten to mention. The resulting mixture of rock'n'roll, guitar pop and piano pop might spell "Big Star" to ye ol' time fans, and certainly Big Star are one of the primary influences here, along with a couple zillion others (Tweedy himself never forgets to mention how Being There was essentially a tribute to his Sixties/Seventies idols, but methinks he's being a bit humble about that). But the scope is inarguably grander than that. And that's another good thing about the album - not only does it have the balls to be big and ponderous, it isn't afraid to be big and ponderous, which, as Old Man Grumble keeps whispering in my ear, is a relatively rare thing today.

And I don't even know where to start with the individual songs, because, well, you know. Okay, let's dwell on this: Disc 1 has a song called 'Outta Sight (Outta Mind)', which is later redone on disc 2 as 'Outta Mind (Outta Sight)' (might be a hidden reference to Neil Young there, eh?). Same song, two versions; I've witnessed actual complaints about this (in the "make up your mind, choose one screw the other, cut down the length, help save plastic" vein - the usual stuff). But it's not like they put both of them on the album because they'd run out of material or something: the two arrangements are drastically different, in fact, I'd say, symbolically different. The first version is all brawny guitars, power chords, and big massive drums, like it could easily be an outtake from A.M.: that's the past. The second version, on the other hand, is all martial pianos, soaring vocal harmonies, and weird muffled proto-experimental percussion: that's the future. (Well, technically speaking, it's also the past, but not exactly Wilco's past - the nod to the Beach Boys is very clear. But it is Wilco's future). Besides, both versions rule, except I find the piano one a bit better.

The lyrics are also consistently clever - primitive and straightforward on tunes where the melody is supposed to take immediate precedence, but wittier and more evocative on the more "generic" material, most noticeably the simplistic country exercises like 'Forget The Flowers' (hey, I know it's subjective and all, but aren't lines like "you're trying my patience, try pink carnations" awesome in terms of phonetic juggle-around?). Also, what's up with the "cash will flow" line on something as proverbially innocent as 'Someday Soon'? See, there's something decidedly tricky about that Tweedy guy, and it happens in spots where you least expect it.

But still, "trickiness" is not the primary feature I'd associate with Mr Songwriter. "Heartfelt beauty", maybe - sometimes - if you pardon the cliched cliches. The little buds of 'Dash 7' broke through the floor and resulted in brushes of bitter, believable melancholy - 'Red-Eyed And Blue', for instance, which clearly milks what looks like a three-note melody for maximum feeling, and it's exactly the kind of feeling you'd expect from a band like Tweedy's: frustration and depression when your musical and spiritual ideals come clashing with sordid reality - 'when we came here today/We all felt something true/Now I'm red-eyed and blue'. That said, it can't be that depressing if you end your song with such a lovable whistling reprise of the main vocal melody. By doing this, and cleverly combining moments of gloom with moments of relaxation throughout, Tweedy avoids falling into the trap of the "original mixed-up kid", making an album that deals with real problems in realistic ways rather than simply ripping apart his T-shirt and rolling around in the ashes.

And the most real of these problems is the problem of connection: connection between Tweedy and the audience, Tweedy and the industry bosses, Tweedy and his partner(s), whoever he/she/they might be. It can certainly be hard to connect, and this hardship is perfectly captured - no, not on 'The Lonely One', much too predictable a choice, but on 'Hotel Arizona', where the word "connection" is actually spoken and the conclusion is that 'that's just something I've gotta get used to" (with a delicious series of doo-doo-doos for background, too); but the song's miserable 'hello, can you hear?...' pleas, echoed by feedback drawls resembling a long phone beep, and the violent musical tempest that occupies most of its second half - as if the poor hotel were receiving a genuine Keithmoonian treatment - somehow suggest that "getting used to it" might take a long, long time.

The simple, technologically unadorned magic of the Unassuming Pop Tune is also perfectly captured on 'Say You Miss Me'; wiseguys may lambast the lyrics for being strictly dumb - 'baby say I'll miss you, just say you'll miss me too' - but the thing is, we all know Tweedy can do much better than that; he simply won't, because he's going for realism, and sometimes - way more often than not, in fact - there's nothing more real than saying "just say you'll miss me too". It's a perfect break-up song, much more so than, uh, I dunno, Blur's 'No Distance Left To Run', just to pick an off-the-cuff example; and musically, the 'whoo-oo-hoo!'s alone are worth the price of admission.

Then there's the "assuming" stuff. Both discs begin with a six-minute-plus 'program statement' of sorts, which, again, will probably appeal more to people who sympathise with all the Tweedys in this world than to people who just wanna hear good pop music, but then I've been known to be wrong, too. The biggest one is 'Sunken Treasure', with lyrics that are hard to decipher until they culminate in Jeff stating that 'Music is my saviour/And I was maimed by rock'n'roll/I was tamed by rock'n'roll/I got my name from rock'n'roll', even if the song itself is hardly rock'n'roll at all; it's a slow, meandering, strictly four-four folk-rock shuffle with a couple thunderous, but somewhat predictable crescendos along the way. I don't love the thing, but I certainly understand its presence - and not offended by it. 'Misunderstood', though, the album opener, I really love a lot. Not just because of the scraping guitars and dissonant feedback in the intro (just one of the just several 'experimental' tidbits just innocently scattered all over the place just to give the whole thing an 'uncommercial' look - there's really nothing innovative or "wild" about Being There), but because of the same things I praised 'Red-Eyed And Blue' for: maximum human emotion over minimum instrumental chords.

For all of the album's ambitions, non-ambitions, suffering, happiness, retroishness, and actualness, though, surprisingly little of this stuff really rocks. I count maybe 'Monday', the first version of 'Outta Sight', 'Hotel Arizona' (although the bombastic crescendo that forms the song's main focus of attention isn't exactly "rock'n'roll", either), and the closing 'Dreamer In My Dreams'; the latter is almost never mentioned as a highlight, possibly because its positioning at the end ain't exactly a listener-enticing way of handling things, but I like it when Wilco are doing barroom rock, and 'Dreamer' is a perfect example of them doing it, what with the fiddle guy going absolutely insane by the time his last solo comes by and all. Besides, I urge you to check out the lyrics to that song - hands down the best on the entire record, even if you can hardly tell a word because of Jeff's intentionally spluttered delivery without consulting the printed version.

Concerning Tweedy's debts to his forefathers, I'm not gonna say much on that account - I've named some of the influences, and it doesn't take too long to figure out a couple dozen others. The important thing is that influences remain influences; this is not an exercise in "let's see how many of yesterday's giants I can imitate" technology, and, despite what Tweedy says himself, it's not even a real "tribute", because "tributes" are not supposed to include the personality of the one who actually pays that tribute, and Being There can't help being way too personal. Maybe Jeff would have liked to have it less personal, but he's not able. Yes, there are songs that read like patented genre exercises - the power-pop of 'I Got You' or the country-pop of 'Someday Soon' - but they're so tightly tied in with Tweedy's soulful, meaningful material that the resulting emotions are simply more complex and delightful to revel in than they could have been otherwise.

PS. And for the record, as I have just finished typing in the names of all the 19 tracks, I can state with certainty that each and every one of them - including the generic ones and the overlong ones - has at least one George-approved hook. Consistency and adequacy - let's see somebody shoot down these twin towers.



Year Of Release: 1999
Overall rating =

You think listening to pop music can't be a hard job? Chew on this.

Best song: I'M ALWAYS IN LOVE from a lazybones perspective, SHE'S A JAR for the hard-working folks

Track listing: 1) Can't Stand It; 2) She's A Jar; 3) A Shot In The Arm; 4) We're Just Friends; 5) I'm Always In Love; 6) Nothing'severgonnastandinmyway; 7) Pieholden Suite; 8) How To Fight Loneliness; 9) Via Chicago; 10) ELT; 11) My Darling; 12) When You Wake Up Feeling Old; 13) Summerteeth; 14) In A Future Age; [BONUS TRACKS:] 15) Candy Floss; 16) A Shot In The Arm (alternate version).

A glorious catastrophe. A musical Waterloo. The sonic equivalent of Robert Scott's expedition. (There, I got your attention now, haven't I?) And, not least of all, an album that has been seriously driving me nuts for several weeks in a row. Some of these points in the rating, I think, are more there for the sake of the journey rather than the final arrival. But it's been a rather unique journey, after all, so, although I'm real tired, I also feel a sort of inner satisfaction.

With Summerteeth, Wilco's ambitions have jumped still a few notches higher. By now, Tweedy has finally settled upon the idea that he's not a country-rocker after all, and that his country-rock stylistics have very much been a subconscious leftover from the Uncle Tupelo curriculum. Surely having the multi-instrument-and-genre-gifted Jay Bennett in the band was a stimulus as well, but overall, it's Tweedy's own evolution that we have to be concerned about. As a result, Summerteeth is poppier and artsier than anything we'd seen from Wilco before. Gone is the age of the fiddle and steel guitar; in come violins, cellos, Mellotrons, and even Theremins-a-plenty. Vocal harmonies also flourish, and much too often, vocal melodies take precedence over instrumental ones - a sheer sign of evolution if there ever was one. In short, goodbye alt-country roots, hello indie-art pop.

That said, I smell problems. Artsy or fartsy, Tweedy is still very much a rock'n'roller at heart. He may express a desire to be Brian Wilson for as long as he lives, but Brian Wilson never ever proclaimed that he "got his name from rock'n'roll" on any of his songs, and even if he did, I'm sure he wouldn't have been able to convey it as sincerely as Tweedy has on 'Sunken Treasure' because, well, Brian Wilson did not get his name from rock'n'roll, while Tweedy did. And he who gets his name on rock'n'roll is not supposed to soil it by tampering with Mellotrons. If he does, he's taking lots of risks. On the positive side, though, it's sometimes much more interesting to see an audacious guy taking lots of risks than listening to Ballbreaker. Sometimes.

Much of Summerteeth, to my ears, sounds as if one of these audacious guys took a mid-period Bob Dylan album and said, 'Wanna bet I can make this into something really entertaining?' Because the melodies, to be honest with you, just don't register. The hooks don't captivate. Not always, but often. Say a song like 'ELT' comes up with its loud guitars and fast tempos and self-assured drums and energized vocals and paradise-approved keyboard lines floating about like the cute little angels they are. Say I wanna like it - I really really do, because, hey, it's not like I'm gonna get this stuff on MTV in the middle of the night. Say I actually like it... while it's on. But when it's over, it's like, uh, well, this was a nice way to spend three minutes. Craftsmanship was immaculate. But this song just did not stay in my head. In fact, this song was pretty fake, now that I think of it - I like Tweedy for his personality, and there was as much personality in it as in a school choir exercise.

It's even more frustrating - but in the end, somewhat more rewarding - with the ballads. Such a lot of empty beauty. A song like 'How To Fight Loneliness' must have taken a whole eternity to record - what with all the clever organs and pianos and backward solos placed throughout according to a meticulous application of all the local feng-shui techniques, no doubt. And there is personality a-plenty, this time around; on the quieter numbers, Tweedy is clever enough not to hide in the background. But with all that work and with all that meticulous planning, he forgot the hook... again. Or, if you don't like the word "hook", let's say he forgot the "climactic insertions". Or "the cathartic breakpoints". Whichever you prefer. And it drives me nuts because the previous two albums have both been chockful of all of those - but on Summerteeth, way too much is spent on form to worry too much about essence.

However, and that's the summertime miracle of it, very little of this stuff is annoying. The only times it does get annoying is a bunch of little moments where Tweedy and friends seem to be saying to you, 'Hi! We're here to fuck up our nice pop songs because that's what separates clever people from stupid ones!' For instance, on 'Via Chicago' - the song that all the critics like to discuss because it has the lines 'I dreamed about killing you again last night and it felt all right to me' pronounced very clearly in the begininng - which is actually quite plain, yet sympathetic, there's this moment where the band consciously loses the rhythm and spends a couple bars wallowing in the sonic muck before reemerging in the good old four-four form. If that's Wilco's idea of simulating spontaneity (confirmed by the fact that it is a very Neil Young-ish ditty attitude-wise), here comes the question: why not just be spontaneous instead of pretending to be?

Ah well. Let me just number the songs which, in my world-weary opinion, do contain hooks. An unquestionable vocal hook is right there in the middle of 'Shot In The Arm'. Not because it's just the line 'maybe all I need is a shot in the arm' repeated over and over. No, not because of that. But because of how that line keeps spiralling higher and higher and the melody eventually starts soaring and you actually get to live that dynamics - as the line finally changes to 'something in my vein, bloodier than blood', I've been caught up in the ecstasy, quite firmly. It's a pity the song reverts to its rather plain verses afterwards and never gets around to the chorus again, wasting its potential on synthesized bubbly-blubbly ear-candy. But it's worth it for the anthemic tide of the mid-section alone.

'I'm Always In Love' pretty much starts in the same point A as 'ELT' and ends up in the same point Z, but, unlike its less adventurous companion, visits points C, D, E... and Y along the way. In other words, there's a great twisted vocal melody and a clever resolution involved, and the pseudo-theremin sound actually weaves a clearly understood pattern, and Tweedy sings in this ecstatic Brit-poppy happy voice that spells genuine excitement, and there's a one-note keyboard riff in memory of the Velvet Underground. Finally, the title track - the closest to a roots-rock excursion they ever get on the album, but still rather far away - is just the kind of song that I think Wilco are always best at: plain, unassuming, humble guitar pop with a friendly, intimate vocal delivery and a slight touch of melancholia for good measure. And the line 'It's just a dream he keeps having, and it doesn't have to mean anything' is easily the most memorable on the album.

Few of the other songs stick with me that well ('Can't Stand It', believe it or not, is more treasurable for the crunchy guitar/piano verse melody than for the somewhat clumsy chorus). But that's okay. "Empty beauty" still holds a price, and in a world that's been almost completely stripped of this beauty, said price is bound to get even higher. So here's this song called 'She's A Jar', ladies and gentlemen. Is that vocal melody truly enticing? Nah, wouldn't say so. In fact, most of it is just Tweedy reading aloud the lyrics like, uh, yeah, like Dylan would, but without Dylan's charisma. (Actually, I think I got Dylan in here because the weeping Mellotron motive gives the song a slightly 'Knockin' On Heaven's Door'-ish mood, now doesn't it?). But that Mellotron. That creeping little organ. That second Mellotron, the proggy one, that comes in later. That tiny harmonica solo. Say what you want, but sometimes overproducing a song actually helps things rather than encumbers them - and considering that it takes guts, talent, and inspiration to trigger that "sometimes", 'She's A Jar' gets my respect thumb high up in the air, even if the enjoyment thumb is still only halfway there, twitching in relative indecision.

There's also the diversity of atmosphere to be considered. While some of the upbeat pop songs are pretty much on the same plain, all of the ballads are different (a good thing, considering that there's simply much more of them quantity-wise). 'She's A Jar' is this stately becalming ode, to be played by St Peter on his dusty old tape recorder as he welcomes you at the gates. 'We're Just Friends' is this heartbroken lo-fi pseudo-demo-like piano thing, to be played after your girl has dumped you, or vice versa. 'How To Fight Loneliness' is this gloomy spider-web art-guitar rumination, particularly recommended for highly spiritual Nick Drake fans. 'My Darling' might just ring a bell for you if you're a saccharine diabetic but happen to be in a hyper-romantic mood - should be subtitled "How To Be Sweet Without Sucking Up To Paul McCartney". 'When You Wake Up Feeling Old' is nonchalant and light-jazzy for you retro suckers. And so on, a small piece of steak for everyone. You may not remember them when they're gone, but while they're on, the feeling certainly lingers. The chords could all be different for as long as I care, but the feel, they get it right on.

The only song that I would actively give both thumbs down sign is 'Pieholden Suite'. It comes at a crucial moment - right in the middle of the album - and I have serious reasons to consider it the chief culprit for making me disinterested in the album's second half for such a long time. Just like that bit in 'Via Chicago', it is supposed to accentuate the band's artsiness and experimentalism, and so, over three and a half minutes, it veers off into several relatively disconnected sections; there's a lethargic ballad piece, a pedestrian pop-rocker piece, and a silly half-jazz, half-martial instrumental piece that ends proceedings on a ridiculously overblown note. With none of the individual melodies particularly interesting or innovative, why should I care about the piece as a whole? So I don't.

And yet I've grown accustomed to her face, er, to this album, I mean. It certainly sounds like nothing else, because, well, I haven't really heard professional "roots-rockers" doing quintessential "art-pop" since at least Their Satanic Majesties' Request, and for every limitation there comes a highly individualistic trait, and plus, it's got soul. It doesn't make me cry, but then I don't usually experience that kind of emotions over high-class baroque musical architecture, which is what Summerteeth pretends to be and, to a large extent, is. And, weird as it is, taken together with the somewhat superior Soft Bulletin, it pretty much makes 1999 a high watermark in this sort of "baroque renaissance".

PS. The album sometimes comes equipped with bonus tracks - a decent, if unnecessary alternate version of 'Shot In The Arm' and a wickedly gleeful power-pop number called 'Candy Floss' that's actually catchier than most of the songs on the album itself and proves that Tweedy is really not "above" hooks, after all. It's just that Summerteeth is a mood album. Remember that - mood album. Mood album. Mood. Like a cow, but without the "e".



Year Of Release: 2002
Overall rating =

Nice songs, naughty presentation.

Best song: WAR ON WAR

Track listing: 1) I Am Trying To Break Your Heart; 2) Kamera; 3) Radio Cure; 4) War On War; 5) Jesus Etc.; 6) Ashes Of American Flags; 7) Heavy Metal Drummer; 8) I'm The Man Who Loves You; 9) Pot Kettle Black; 10) Poor Places; 11) Reservations.

I sincerely hope that my rating this album the exact same as the ten times less complex, twenty times more "generic" A.M. does not reflect my general attitude towards the modern indie-rock scene. Alas, considering that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot eventually came to be critically acclaimed as the decade's greatest artistic triumph a whole eight years before that decade's end, I'm afraid that just might be the case. However, for now, let's not generalise. Let's talk about the friggin' music in question, or, rather, those chunks of it that can be extracted from under the ruins of the Yankee Hotel.

That's not "Yankee Hotel" on the cover, by the way. That's something probably only well known to select Chicago residents, called "Marina City", nicknamed "corncob buildings", and housing thousands of residents and an out-of-order swimming pool. But if you happened to be looking from a few meters away, you sure could mistake it for the late Twin Towers, couldn't you? At the very worst, you could be associating. More than that, one glance at the song titles - 'War On War', 'Ashes Of American Flags'; one peek at lyrics like 'tall buildings shake, voices escape... skyscrapers are scraping together...' ('Jesus Etc.)' or 'you have to learn to die if you want to be alive' ('War On War'); one of each and it's pretty obvious this is Wilco's big heartfelt tribute to 9/11.

Well, by now you probably know that it isn't, considering that the album was recorded in its entirety a whole year before the eventual release on the Nonsuch label. But it is a once-in-a-lifetime coincidence that just as Jeff Tweedy left his deeply personal torments and yearnings behind and focused on something more globalised and anthemic, along came 9/11 and gave the whole thing an entirely new reading that was never really intended by the artist. And want it or not, that's one big reason for the legend of YHF - those who didn't know were emotionally devastated, those who did know rejoiced at the prospect of seeing those who didn't emotionally devastated.

The other big reason, of course, was the quintessential "indie spirit triumph over greed and stupidity" story that has probably already been inscribed into the archive of "revolutionary rock events" along with Bob Dylan's Newport Festival concert, the commercial success of Frampton Comes Alive, and the noseless Michael Jackson photo. Since each and every review of YHF regularly begins with a detailed description of the turmoil, there's a million sources where you can check the details; telegraphically, the situation can be described as "Wilco record album; get rejected by Reprise; buy out the album, put it on the Web for download; become successful; sign contract with Nonesuch; release the album officially; get a 10 out of 10 at Pitchforkmedia; be very, very happy".

The naive idealist within me does indeed rejoice. The bitter cynic, of course, adds an acid piss streak by noting that what has formally happened can simply be described as moving from one Warner label to another, not to mention that today you can't get shit off Wilco's site for free, and that includes both YHF itself and every other Wilco album. So this is as much blackmail as it is heroism. But never mind the technicalities - I'm not trying to be a judge of Jeff Tweedy's morals here, nor do I have a right to. It's his music, after all, and he's perfectly free to make anything of it, including animal balloons. I'm just a little concerned that this mythological incident may have puffed up the record's importance quite a bit - and undeservedly so.

Now here's my shocking confession. I can honestly say that if I were a top branch Reprise official, and it was up to me to give YHF the green lights, I would most probably said no as well. And certainly not because the album is too "uncommercial", as was the official explanation. Well, that, too, but the worst thing about it is not its being uncommercial; the worst thing about it is that, as an artistic concept, it makes NO SENSE. WHAT-SO-EVER.

I like experimentation - sometimes. Quite often, actually. But I like experimentation with a purpose. I know when Jimi Hendrix is "experimenting", he is looking for new, futuristic, psychedelic sounds that bring Man closer to Nirvana, or at least could do so. I know when Brian Eno is "experimenting", he's running like a little child around his odd machines and trying to see what else these little beasts can do to blow our minds. I know when Robert Fripp is "experimenting", he is trying to discover just how many different time signatures there are that you can play in without confusing the already well-trained human ear. And I know when Robert Smith is "experimenting", he is exploring the dark depths of sound, with each new layer corresponding to a deeper slice of the listener's conscience.

On Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, nothing of the sort happens. The average formula of a YHF song is as follows: write a relatively simple, undemanding roots-rock/folk-pop song - and then proceed to record it in the most bizarre way possible. "Bizarre way" generally involves assorted sound effects, of mostly random nature and popping in at the most unpredictable moments; futuristic synthesizer loops, of mostly random nature and popping in at the most unpredictable moments; and an obviously fake air of "spontaneity" - the songs start and stop wherever and whenever they like, usually growing like fungus out of sonic quagmires and - instead of simply coming to a halt - dissolving into sonic mucus once they're over.

This kind of thing had already begun on Summerteeth, but on YHF it really reaches its culmination. And I'm deeply sorry for saying this, but what indie fans all over the world see as a spellbinding sonic achievement I can only regard as a pointless annoyance. The problem is that these arrangements and these songs just do not belong together. They are together, yes, but I don't see any reason why they should be. I know of songs that could have benefited from these arrangements, but they're not these songs. I know of arrangements that could have gracefully decorated these songs, but they're not these arrangements. I don't know why 'I Am Trying To Break Your Heart' has to go on for seven minutes. It's a good song, but it says everything it has to say in three. The rest is just mucking around with assorted keyboards and samples and loops and crap. It's not a very tricky song - any sonic overkill on it will just look inadequate. I can't even say I haven't heard any of this type of sonic overkill before. It's all been done. It doesn't open any new horizons. It's just a way of saying "Okay, I've written a decent song, now I'm gonna surround it with a lot of crazy dissonant shit and make it artsy and defiantly non-commercial".

Occasionally it works - on those rare occasions, that is, when the sonic textures are directly woven into the song in the form of a counter-melody. Like the growling astral synth loops on 'War On War', for instance - now that's a major aural delight, I think, and quite crucial in my selecting the song as the album's best. Or it could be Glenn Kotche's tricky polyrhythms (I think Jim DeRogatis went as far as to compare them with the ones used on Captain Beefheart's records - hyperbole, yes, but not entirely groundless), which sometimes add the much needed "complexity" feel to Tweedy and Bennett's generally unsophisticated melodic constructions. But more often, it hinders rather than advances. I have no use for the apocalyptic whoosh-whoosh at the end of 'Poor Places'; I've heard lots of apocalyptic whoosh whooshes in my life. And ever since I finally sat through the final three minutes of 'Reservations' for the first time - the static ambient drone that acts as an overall coda to the album - I've been regularly tempted to switch the player off three minutes before the album's end. And sometimes yielded to temptation, too.

So why an 11? Here's the kicker - because the songs themselves are good. Maybe not quite Being There-quality good, but definitely Summerteeth-quality good and sometimes even better. Once you finally tear through all the mumbo-jumbo useless walls of useless sound, at the core of YHF lies... just another collection of nice "alt-country", as they used to call them, tunes from nice, lovable guy Jeff Tweedy and his reformed bandmates. (And note that I still wouldn't hesitate to call much of this "alt-country" because the strictly musical essence of Wilco has really changed much less over these years than Tweedy himself would have you believe). As revolutionary music to take us into the next century, I'm not buying this; as groovy, friendly (but not necessarily user-friendly) music, I totally and utterly am. Well, I guess 'Poor Places' still does nothing for me, okay; the rest definitely do.

I like 'I Am Trying To Break Your Heart' (the imaginary three-minute version, that is). The vocal melody is quite trivial, but the singing is seductive, lyrics like 'I am an American aquarium drinker' are puzzling and amusing, and the playful keyboard breaks are toe-tappy and full of poppy warmth. Plus, for all of its simplicity, Kotche drums out some real crazy patterns - as if he were handling a bunch of piano keys instead of two clumsy drumsticks. I like 'War On War'. I like how the acoustic clashes with those harsh synth loops, and I like the 'you have to lose' chorus, and I like how casually the guru delivers the album's philosophical message, which is really the only way to deliver a pretentious message in a world filled with sharp-toothed descendants of those rock critics who skilfully sank prog rock's battleship three decades ago.

I like 'Heavy Metal Drummer'. Well, I'm not sure I exactly like the nostalgia expressed in lyrics like 'playing KISS covers, beautiful and stoned' (the words 'KISS' and 'beautiful' so do not belong in one sentence - shame on you, Mr Tweedy!), but I'll take that as tongue-in-cheek and concentrate on the awesome vocal harmonies instead and the general cute upbeatness of the song. And also the fact that it's, like, the only song on the album that manages to keep it short, sweet, and completely up to the point.

I also like the album's most hard-rocking number, 'I'm The Man Who Loves You', built around a sharp, distorted, hiccupy Neil Young guitar pattern and an overdriven slide melody (and more of those whoa-hooing vocal harmonies - together with the country-rock arrangement, this really makes the song more Rolling Stones than Neil but I'm sure Tweedy is perfectly happy to cater to both). I like the strings on 'Jesus Etc.' and how Tweedy's shaking, nervous voice still manages to bring it all together with a perfectly catchy chorus (that's the one with shaking tall buildings in it). I like the simple, honest stomp of 'Pot Kettle Black', a song that, believe it or not, gets sonically deconstructed as it moves along and then "reconstructed" back again.

I like it all. It's only pretending not be rock'n'roll, but I like it, like it, yes I do. Heck, I even like the lengthy monotonous dronings of 'Radio Cure' and 'Ashes Of American Flags' - mostly because I know that I'll eventually be rewarded when the monotonous dronings magically metamorphose into cathartic hooks (the "distance has no way of making love understandable" bit on the former and, of course, the 'I know I would die if I could come back new' bit on the latter).

Supposedly, though, I'm liking it all for the wrong reasons. Not because they used to offer it for free, not because they drowned it in sonic effects and silly loops and recordings from mysterious "numbers stations" (the album title was actually provided by one of those), not because Tweedy's lyrical abilities have "matured" to the point of being able to offer the audiences something that Alanis Morrisette cannot, not even because it's been produced by hip guy Jim O'Rourke. Nope. I like it for two things. Good songs. And stylish album photo, even if the swimming pool no longer works.



Year Of Release: 2004
Overall rating =

This record should be played loud, so that you could be able to hear it. Except it also involves going deaf at some point.


Track listing: 1) At Least That's What You Said; 2) Hell Is Chrome; 3) Spiders (Kidsmoke); 4) Muzzle Of Bees; 5) Hummingbird; 6) Handshake Drugs; 7) Wishful Thinking; 8) Company In My Back; 9) I'm A Wheel; 10) Theologians; 11) Less Than You Think; 12) The Late Greats.

If we really want to get pick-pick-picky about it, the ghost was born two years in advance - the "ghost" of Jeff Tweedy as the potential saviour of rock music as a valid art medium. I gotta tell you, though, that I far prefer the real Tweedy, not the ghost-like Tweedy, and that this new record, different as it is from Yankee Hotel Shock Treatment, still does not even begin to scale the heights of Wilco's former successes, and for the exact same reasons - that Jeff Tweedy doesn't seem to be doing the kind of thing he was born to do. In fact, Jeff Tweedy seems to be lying on his couch, procrastinating and alternately suffering from migraines and painkillers, and it's his ghost that's doing all the job. "Cherry ghost", to be more precise and use the gentleman's own words.

Anyway, getting to business. Good news: the creaky-cracky and hissy-wissy noises that had been placed all over YHF and subsequently destroyed any hope of reaching a critical consensus (in my case, the bar went smoothly down, others punched it up) are gone. Not just minimalised or modified - gone, like a bad dream, as if Tweedy had suddenly decided they were a bad dream. That's what I used to think, at least, until I finally discovered the truth. They weren't really gone: they were tracked, hunted down, and meticulously laid to rest in one particular place, like the fairy-tale creatures in Shrek, namely, the next to last track. Which makes it unlistenable, of course, but let's face it, it's much better to have one unlistenable track on the album that you can easily skip than have to deal with "elements of unlistenability" on practically every goddamn song in a row.

Bad news: the creaky-cracky and hissy-wissy noises apparently weren't happy about being ousted out in such a rude way, so, in what looks like a carefully planned revenge schedule, they took along much of the music itself. And actually, I am not being plain silly here, because this is all certainly tied in with the dismissal of Jay Bennett, who was very much responsible for the sonic depth and complexity of Wilco's previous three albums. I'm sure the other band members - such as Glenn Kotche and Leroy Bach (the latter also left the band, but after the sessions for Ghost, if I'm not mistaken) - are nice chaps and all, but they look more like trustworthy executives to me than respectable collaborators.

As a result, many of the songs do look like 'ghosts'. Keyboards take heavy precedence over guitars, melancholic balladeering almost completely eliminates hard rocking, and the default singing mode for Tweedy is now "mumble mumble mumble", regardless of the song's mood, style, tempo, or length. In fact, the "rough" and "tender" sides of the band are quite consciously divorced: I cannot say that there's no guitar presence on the album, for instance, but the guitar-dependent parts are mostly structured as independent codas to (or intermissions within) the songs, having very little to do with the main content. Many of these parts I like - Tweedy is a pretty skilful player, after all, and is almost always interesting, and often inspiring, to listen to - but they really look like afterthoughts, stuff that might have been added on the very last day in order to make the final product a bit livelier.

Case in point: 'At Least That's What You Think' opens the album on the quietest Wilco note ever, with two minutes of Tweedy meditating over the next bunch of his relationship problems on the piano (not too memorable, but relatively moving). Then it's crash-boom-bang time and after you've been hammered into the ground with a couple bars of one single guitar/piano note borrowed from the Gestapo torture archive, we move into a Neil Youngian guitar jam session. A good enough session, to be sure, cleverly crafted and employing the crescendo trick to good effect. But there are no central themes, neither in the sung part nor in the instrumental ones, no reasonable link between the two. Maybe I would understand it if we were reverted back to the quiet moody piano section at the end of the song, but we aren't. So, even if I like the song, I'm also left a bit puzzled by it.

Fortunately, most of the other tracks are much more concise. My old pop sellout side keeps pushing me towards the shorter, catchier numbers, of course. These do not include 'I'm A Wheel', the album's lone, and rather misguided, attempt at a "rocker" which merely goes to show just how much time has elapsed between it and 'Casino Queen'. Well, it's been less than a decade, actually, but all it took was a decade for Tweedy to forget his rocking roots so utterly that 'I'm A Wheel' sounds more like a bright 'n' clean nursery rhyme set to "rock rhythms" than anything 'scruffy' in nature. Which isn't to say it sucks or anything, but I do derive far more pleasure from the pure pop of the 'turn on you, turn on you' falsetto harmonies than from its mad tempo or occasional guitar "blasts".

But they do include the charming music hall of 'Hummingbird', one of the best songs Paul McCartney never wrote, in one of the cutest musical styles Tweedy had the chance of mastering. In case you only listened to the album once or twice, it's the one with the ecstatic violin solo at the end, remember? Ah, now you remember. The solo is the most outstanding part of it, but the more you come back to the song, the more you'll probably learn to enjoy all of its sections, and maybe even the romantic lyrics, whose sentimental cliches fit in so well with the light, floating piano chords. And then the songwriting talent shines just as brightly through the simple, but not so simple chord changes in 'Theologians'. Funny - the disrupted flow of the vocal melody on that song, married to its steady midtempo, keeps reminding me of 'I Must Be High', only now, with piano replacing guitar as the leading instrument, the impression is like the singer is about ten years older than he used to be. Hey, wait a minute!..

While Tweedy's headaches and perturbances have, to a large extent, eliminated his burning desire to emulate each and all (I count very few direct references to Jeff's heroes on this album than most of its predecessors), I still can't resist the urge to draw at least one more parallel: 'Hell Is Chrome', to me, sounds tremendously The Band-ish, especially when he sings 'you must go... so I went'. But maybe it's not so much the melody as it's the reference to personal communication with the horned one, which gives the song a pinch of Biblical flavour and extra "spirituality". A very American song this is, but then again Wilco are a very American band, too (certainly much more so than the Flaming Lips, a product of Oklahoma miscarriage if there ever was one! :)). I'm just afraid that there's just one tiny step from depth, spirituality and melancholy to boredom, and I'm never sure if 'Hell Is Chrome' has already made that step or is merely about to.

Likewise, the gentle and mild progression of 'Handshake Drugs' and the acoustic-meets-astral sloppiness of 'Wishful Thinking' are hypnotizing and magical one moment and then sweet background muzak the next one. The hooks are there all right and so is the feeling, but too many painkillers, too many painkillers. What can I say? Lethargic music does put me to sleep, I can't help it. So in the end I guess I should be grateful when the tacked-on guitar codas arrive because they help put me back in shape before the next hazy dream comes on and drives me out of it again.

The two mega-mega-songs that everybody talks about don't help matters much, either. Well, 'Spiders' is kinda fun. It's bouncy and juggling and if it was meant to be an improvement on the VU's 'Sister Ray', well, it is an improvement because Tweedy's free-jazz improvisation is much more exciting (not to mention better heard) than Lou Reed's, and then the song has these monumental piano-led bridges that provide diversity and all. I sort of get the reasons for its existence, even if it's hardly a masterpiece. But it's one thing when Tweedy wants to be Lou Reed or Neil Young, and quite another thing when he wants to be Brian Eno. Not only does 'Less Than You Think' start out as the album's least memorable ballad, it also ends in an electronic drone that occupies 730 seconds of your lifetime (the approximate number of electronic drones previously effectuated by other artists, I gather). According to Jeff's own explanations, everything you hear during those seconds is supposed to represent the feelings he used to experience during his intense migraines while working on the album. Well gee, thanks, Mr Tweedy, how kind and thoughtful of you to share your pain with the listener in such a literal, honest manner. The only thing I was so far lacking in my life was to get inside somebody else's headaches, as if I didn't have plenty of mine own already.

Like I said, though, it's no major deal in our push-the-skip-button epoch (and I'm one hundred percent sure that one hundred percent of those who intend to keep listening to the album - bar long-term masochists, professional sound engineers and recent dog reincarnations - will agree with me), especially since you know that one simple push will immediately get you through to the nice album closer, 'The Late Greats', Tweedy's predictable, but still refreshing take on the state of modern radio and how 'The greatest singer in rock and roll/Would have to be Romeo/His vocal chords are made of gold/He just looks a little too old'. In sharp contrast with the entire approach of the album, 'The Late Greats' is the most upbeat record closer Tweedy has ever done since 'Dreamer In My Dreams', and this is reassuring: maybe the man isn't sunk so deep in the lethargy pool after all, and there is certain hope that Wilco's music may yet combine depth, inventiveness, and rousing rock'n'roll catchiness some time in the future. In the meantime, feel free to enjoy A Ghost Is Born, but keep in mind that the genre you're dealing with is Headache-Rock.


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