Uncle Tupelo – Still Feel Gone

Still Feel Gone (1991)

A-

1. Gun 2. Looking For A Way Out 3. Fall Down Easy 4. Nothing 5. Still Be Around 6. Watch Me Fall 7. Punch Drunk 8. Postcard 9. D. Boon 10. True To Life 11. Cold Shoulder 12. Discarded 13. If That’s Alright

 

Jeff Tweedy has said that he’s upset fan expectations with just about every single album he’s put out since he’s had fans, starting with this one. Some folks apparently were a bit displeased with Still Feel Gone when it came out because they thought it sounded “too slick” coming on the heels (now there’s a really solid, unintentionally dirty line. Y’all foot fetishists know what I mean) of No Depression. Just goes to show how fickle and closed-minded alt-country rock fans can be, since, as a very similar album to its predecessor, there’s barely a damn thing UT did on No Depression that they don’t improve upon on Still Feel Gone, whether it be songwriting, lyrics, or use and variation of timbre. I guess the only real downgrade is that Farrar isn’t playing J. Mascis’ guitar anymore, which means the guitar sound here isn’t as heavy and full frontal. It’s why “Punch Drunk,” if done up like, say, “Factory Belt” and placed on No Depression, might’ve been passable, but here is a crashing, melody-less mess. But the overall effect is that the songs are left with more room to breathe, and that only serves to prove that they’re better than the last time around.

Don’t get me wrong, the guitars are still punk-distorted and the rockers still shift their time signatures as often as Newt Gingrich develops a new jowl, as the Minutemen remain perhaps the influence of choice. Witness the emblematic “D. Boon,” Jeff’s tribute to the Minutemen frontman… “This isn’t written for any one man/Just the songs that he sings… it’s about me.” This is the beginning of the “sonic shoulder to cry on,” the theme of personal growth and revelation through a relationship with music that Tweedy would continue to explore throughout his entire career (see: most of Being There, “Wilco (The Song),” etc.). Musically, though, it’s just another early Tupelo rocker, which makes in one of the least interesting songs on the album. That’s because Jay and Jeff had clearly been spending a lot more time writing while sitting on couches strumming acoustic guitars instead of relying on riffs and time shifts to carry their songs – and the improvement inherent in that practice definitely shows. Like, the mid-tempo “Looking For A Way Out” is probably the most “normal” rocker they’d done to this point, but it’s a better song than most of their previous efforts; it embodies Jay’s obsession with the downtrodden everyman as well as any other song they ever did. Jeff’s backup vocals on the last verse get me every time. The short, strummy, Dylany harmonica-laden “True To Life” works similarly, and just as well. These guys have just gotten smarter about constructing songs, and not just from a songwriting standpoint, but with arrangements too. There’s an even more symbiotic melding of the band’s punk, country and folk influences than on Depression, which results in some really cool shit, ie “Postcard,” which starts out as a pummeling rocker and progressively gets slower until it eventually turns into slow after-hours country with mandolin and pedal steel. And then it changes back again! The contrast between loud electric guitars and trad-folk instrumentation that pops up a few times here (“Fall Down Easy,” the triumphant banjo riff on “Discarded”) is a really neat, and, at the time at least, unique trick, and will keep you on your toes as a listener.

But the big story on Gone is that Tweedy makes a big time power play with his songwriting, starting with this record’s bookending songs, and in particular the not-country-at-all, Replacements-esque opener “Gun.” It’s a hell of a fuck-you-don’t-tell-me-what-to-do rocker, a true classic, and still one of Jeff’s best songs. Especially since most people, Jay Farrar included, must’ve been pretty surprised at the time to hear him come up with something that posessed such energy and caliber. It’s sorta still surprising to hear it coming from the man we now know as Mr. “play really quiet while I whisper about how miserable I am.” “Screen Door” was great because of its simplicity and naivety, and for that reason can very much be considered a sideman’s song, but songs like “Gun” don’t come from people with mere second-banana talent; Tweedy would soon prove it wasn’t a fluke. The lyrics, like much of Jeff’s material here, are introspective, and though the result is sometimes clumsy (“I sold my guitar to the girl next door/She asked me if I knew how/I told her ‘I don’t think so anymore.’” WHERE’S THE SUBJECT NOUN, JEFF, YOU RHYME-HAPPY BASTARD?!?), he provides a nice contrast to Farrar’s somewhat one-noted face-the-world, public consciousness platitudes. Jeff’s closer, “If That’s Alright,” is mighty fine as well – some very interesting chord changes help turn it into a dreamy ballad that’s decidedly more alt-rock than alt-country (yup, who’d a thunk that in a decade’s time Mr. Tweedy Bird would find himself cast as indie’s great white hope?). In between he gives us gems like the acoustic shuffle “Watch Me Fall” and the near-poppy “Nothing” (which Farrar, of course, contemptuously plays straight like all the other rockers here in an attempt to keep such tendencies as well under wraps as possible). It’s clear that Tweedy was stepping up his game big time, but Farrar still manages to steal the show with “Still Be Around,” one of the most beautiful songs he or anyone else has ever strummed. If you think “Walked and breathed many a cancerous mile/Where the bat of an eye is too slow to beat the coffin” is a weird line, you’re shit out of luck, because Jay’s lyrics would only get more idiosyncratic from here. But I wouldn’t change a thing about this song.

Still Be Around is probably this band’s least celebrated album, but if I’m in the mood for “early Uncle Tupelo,” I’ll almost always reach for this over No Depression. Make sure you get the 2003 reissue, too, because among the bonus tracks are a couple of B-sides you don’t want to be without – those being “Sauget Wind,” which starts out as basic slow country strumming but intermittently breaks into these huge-sounding whirlwinds of distortion, and the impossibly catchy, force-speed cover of the Soft Boys’ “I Wanna Destroy You.” They underscore how comfortable the band had become in their then-inimitable style, as well as how curious it is that said style, the sound that they’re known for and influenced so many other bands, only lasted them two albums. Maybe they hadn’t quite reached a pinnacle with it yet, but I guess, after this, they figured, “close enough” and moved on to even greener pastures.