The Hudson Guide to Wilco

When Uncle Tupelo broke up in May, 1994, few people predicted that it would be bassist Jeff Tweedy who would ultimately become a platinum-selling artist. After all, Uncle Tupelo was formed by guitarist Jay Farrar, who wrote the majority of the material on the band’s four groundbreaking albums.
For the first year or so, it was Farrar who capitalized on the critical success of Uncle Tupelo’s swan song, Anodyne. Fronting his new band, Son Volt, Farrar released Trace, generally considered one of the greatest albums of the mid-90’s alt-country mini-phenomenon.
Since their debut, however, Farrar has struggled to stay above the fringes of rock ‘n’ roll. While he has never released a truly bad album (and his latest disc, The Search, is pretty damned good), critics contend that he’s primarily released the same album over and over.
Nobody could ever say that Jeff Tweedy has made the same album twice. While Wilco, the band he formed shortly after Farrar created Son Volt, has seen it’s share of drama, almost every record they’ve released can best be described as a reaction to their previous album.
Not that Tweedy’s career has been all roses and acclaim. Years of migraines eventually led to an addiction to prescription drugs, and personnel have floated in and out of the band since its inception. Most famously, Wilco’s biggest selling album was initially turned down by their record company, a dilemma captured in the award-winning documentary, I Am Trying To Break Your Heart.
With a new album, Sky Blue Sky, set to hit stores on May 15, Prime thought it was time to take a look at the catalog of this band that some have called the “American Radiohead”.

A.M. (1995). While Farrar assembled a whole new band under the Son Volt moniker, Tweedy kept the rest of the expanded Uncle Tupelo lineup. Their debut release carried on with the country-rock that latter day Tupelo was known for, with an emphasis on the CCR-ish rock side. “Boxful of Letters” dealt with the band’s breakup, and “Passenger Side” was a humorous look at the dilemma of surviving without a driver’s license. There was nothing groundbreaking on this release, but many fans who don’t appreciate Tweedy’s later experiments in feedback and sound effects consider this their greatest moment as a band. Grade: B+

Being There (1996). Never known before as a prolific songwriter, Tweedy surprised everybody with this double-disc set that many have described as a concept album revolving around the life of a touring band. Listening to it ten years later, this album emerges as a bridge of sorts between Tweedy’s past and future. Many songs carried on the country-rock traditions of his past, while a handful of songs (particularly “Misunderstood” and “Sunken Treasure”) point to the sonic experiments of the future. The only real downfall of this release is four or five songs that can best be described as filler. Grade: B

Mermaid Avenue, Vol.1 (1998) and Vol. 2 (2000). Woody Guthrie’s daughter Nora surprised the folk community by handing over notebooks of unrecorded Guthrie originals to Wilco and Billy Bragg (with cameos by Natalie Merchant and others). For the most part, Wilco provides the backing to vocals by Tweedy and Bragg, and despite a rumored feud between the two artists both albums attain standards that match anything they’ve ever recorded. Grades: A (Vol. 1)/A- (Vol. 2)

Summerteeth (1999). It’s not an understatement to say that nobody expected this turn in Wilco’s career. For the most part, there’s little country-rock roots in this collection of power pop tunes that owe more to the Beach Boys, E.L.O., and the Replacements than Gram Parsons and Neil Young. Many consider this to be the most underrated release in the band’s career. Grade: A-

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002). The multiple behind the scenes stories involving this album could fill a whole book (and will soon in an upcoming edition of the 33 1/3 series). To summarize, the band lost two members during the recording of this album (including chief collaborator/multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett), recorded hours and hours of music that Tweedy struggled to complete, and ultimately the band had to shop for a new label after Reprise Records refused to release the finished product. Adding to the band’s misfortunes, the contents of the album was leaked to the internet a full year before it’s official release. (This is where one must include a plug for I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, the documentary that fully explains this real-life soap opera.)
Yet Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is ultimately Tweedy’s masterpiece, described by many as “Hillbilly OK Computer” Epic sound collages mix with pure pop melodies, challenging and enthralling listeners at the same time. Although recorded well before 9/11, the album eerily captures the conflicting moods of the country in those months immediately after the tragic attacks. Grade: A+

A Ghost is Born (2004). Even the greatest bands struggle to follow up their biggest albums, and Wilco was no exception. The sonic experiments that marked YHF are still present on this album, and while at times more extreme (particularly the ten minutes of white noise that makes “Less Than You Think” almost impossible to sit through) they’re less prevalent. The overall vibe is more laid-back than on previous albums, although Jeff Tweedy’s blistering lead guitar work separates the album from the likes of Jack Johnson. Grade: B+

Kicking Television (2005). Few bands release live albums these days, and even fewer put out double disc concert sets. While the revamped lineup (now including acclaimed guitarist Nels Cline) performs impeccably, at times even improving on the original studio versions of the songs, the tracklisting doesn’t really flow like a true live performance. Fans would be better suited to track down any of the dozens of soundboard recordings that are floating on the web. Grade: B

Sky Blue Sky (2007). Leaked to the internet in mid-March, Wilco’s latest album is shaping up to be one of the most noteworthy albums of the first half of the year. It’s certainly their “warmest” record today; primarily acoustic with flashes of the dueling guitars of Tweedy and Cline. Unlike the last few albums, the studio setting does not act as an extra musician. Instead, songs like “Impossible Germany” and “What Light” brings visions of an unlikely afternoon jam session between members of Village Green-era Kinks, Poco, and Television. Grade: A


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