Wilco – Introductory Page

Wilco

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Jeff Tweedy has a troubled track record with guys named Jay. First it was his acrimonious clash with Jay Farrar that resulted in the breakup of Uncle Tupelo in 1994, and then it was the schism in Wilco with guitarist Jay Bennett, a conflict forever immortalized on film for all to see. One can only hope that he isn’t plotting a crossover into hip-hop with Jay-Z – it’ll be the end of both of them. But as littered with strife as those musical—and otherwise—relationships have been, the fact that they developed to such ostentatious breaking points is a strong indicator of one important thread of Tweedy’s career: in order to do his best work, he has always needed a collaborator. Even though he’s run Wilco essentially like a dictatorship—singing every song, firing scores of band members at will—the best music he’s made has usually arisen from allowing another voice or two to penetrate his sphere of influence, whether it was Farrar, Bennett, or later producer Jim O’Rourke. But I don’t think Jeff has necessarily admitted that to himself yet. I can more than understand that, when he started Wilco, he wanted more freedom and control than he had under the iron dick of Jay Farrar in Uncle Tupelo. But when he fired Jay Bennett, essentially for having acquired as much sway in the creative direction of the band as Tweedy had, and did so by using dopey metaphors such as “a circle can only have one center,” he was basically full of shit.

Nobody, I don’t think, would deny that Tweedy has always supplied nearly all the songwriting, and that usually Wilco songs thus primarily reflect shades of his own personality. But Wilco has never just been “Jeff’s band,” as much as he’d probably like it to be. I once read a quote from bassist John Stirratt that Tweedy considers Wilco songs to be covers of his songs, which in my humble opinion is pretty far off the mark. Yes, most Wilco songs originate with Tweedy and an acoustic guitar, but, really, the magic of Wilco is in the textures, the ever-shifting, boundary-pushing, frequently beautiful, other times challenging, musical expressions the band creates to musically illustrate the emotions Tweedy wants to convey in his songs. And—though not to discount Tweedy’s development into an emotionally powerful lyricist—more often than not, those expressions are the reasons why Wilco’s music resonates with so many people. Is Tweedy one of the best songwriters of his generation? Yes. But do people love Yankee Hotel Foxtrot because of the three-chord folk roots that most of its songs are based in? No. It’s all the other shit—the Jim O’Rourke production whooshes, the aching beauty of the atmosphere, the otherworldly feel—that turned the album into such a phenomenon.

I’m probably the first person in at least a decade to come to Wilco through Uncle Tupelo – No Depression was the first album I ever heard that had Jeff Tweedy on it (actually, that’s not entirely true. It was actually Ian “Mott the Hoople” Hunter’s 2006 solo album Shrunken Heads, on which Tweedy sings backing vocals. How weird is that?), and I was wary of Wilco based on their reputation as the godfathers of an indie rock scene that I found really weird and boring (some things never change). However, after having absorbed the Uncle Tupelo oeuvre—of course concluding that Jay Farrar’s songs were, for the most part, clearly superior to Tweedy’s—I decided that it probably couldn’t hurt to further investigate where that overrated little runt Tweedy progressed to after Unkie broke up. I expected to eventually reach a cutoff point in their catalog where the douchey hipster indie rock arrived and I could begin deriding them for being annoying and overrated (like I do with Radiohead).

I went through their catalog in exact chronological order, which of course means I started with their rather inauspicious debut album, 1995’s A.M. The band had begun rehearsing barely more than a couple of weeks after Uncle Tupelo played their last show, and at the time was basically Uncle Tupelo’s expanded lineup minus Farrar – Tweedy on guitar and vocals, John Stirratt on bass, Ken Coomer on drums, and Max Johnston on pedal steel/dobro/whatever (Tweedy and Stirratt are the only remaining members from this lineup, and in fact the only remaining members who had been in the band before 2001). Tupelo associate Brian Henneman played lead guitar on A.M., but, preoccupied with fronting the Bottle Rockets, didn’t stick around for any longer, leaving the boys to fill his slot with Jay Bennett just in time for their first show in late 1994. Bennett had come from a power pop background in Titanic Love Affair, and, with his poofy bleach blonde hairstyle—occasionally known to have been organized into some truly bold white boy dreads—certainly didn’t look the alt-country part. That’s probably what attracted Tweedy, ready to move on to new things by the time A.M. came out, to him, along with the obvious draws of his fine guitar skills and his ability to play keyboards.

These factors figured heavily into the making of Wilco’s second LP, the double album blowout Being There, which broke Tweedy free of his alt-country shackles and blew a lot of people’s minds back in ’96 with its utterly convincing classic rock mimicry. It certainly blew my mind when I first heard it – from then on I knew that Wilco were for real, and had to be more than music for whiny hipsters. Being There elevated Wilco to a new strata of popularity, and they responded by embarking on a notoriously belligerent, debaucherous tour – the pissed off arguments Tweedy used to get in with audience members back then contrast sharply with the sarcastic-yet-hospitable near-stand up routine he does on stage today. In the midst of all that, lefty British troubadour Billy Bragg approached the band about collaborating on writing new music for a set of unreleased Woody Guthrie lyrics. The result was the two Mermaid Avenue albums; in between them came Wilco’s own Brian Wilson-influenced Summerteeth, which saw Bennett mounting his army of keyboards and finding himself on nearly equal creative footing with Tweedy.

A ton of different things came to a head for the band between 2001 and 2002, and accordingly the era been so mythologized that it’s not worth hearing me blabber on about it for very long – go see the fortuitously-timed documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart for the well-worn story. By the end of the ordeal, Wilco had lost Bennett, but gained a new drummer in Glenn Kotche, as well as a reputation for slaying the maligned dragon of record company dogma, and had one of the most revered albums of the early 21st Century, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, to show for it. For better or worse, that album has played a huge role in dictating what has gone on in indie rock since it came out, and very little has come close to matching the quality of the source material. The band economized to a 4-piece for the Foxtrot tour, with Tweedy taking over lead guitar duties, and in 2004 produced the softcore gem A Ghost Is Born. Then, having downsized and quieted down as far as they could, they abruptly built the thing all the way back up again, beefing up the lineup with keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen, multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone and, as the coupe de grace, guitarist Nels Cline, previously a well-established figure in the avant-garde jazz world and one of the most talented guitar players working today. And although the band’s studio work has declined slightly over the past few years, mostly due to the fact that Tweedy is, you know, getting old and stuff, this lineup has lasted at least twice as long as any other previous Wilco lineup, and has proven to be a supreme live juggernaut.

The success of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and especially its popularity in certain hipsterly circles, meant that some sort of backlash against Wilco was inevitable. When it did arrive, it came in the Pitchfork-originated slag of “dad rock,” which basically means they’re getting old and relaxed and aren’t “experimental” anymore. Well, I think Tweedy is still trucking on in essentially the same folk-based songwriting style that he has been since he laid down “Screen Door” for Uncle Tupelo in 1990, so any decline can probably be attributed to the fact that he no longer has that strong creative partner to challenge him. Who knows, maybe Pat Sansone will turn out to be that guy, but I don’t think I’ll be able to take him completely seriously until he stops wearing a haircut that looks so ridiculously fake that I’m almost sure it’s a wig under which he’s hiding a stash of precious jewels or something.

But I don’t care how tame Pitchfork implies my musical tastes are. As those of you in the know can probably tell from the name of my website, I love Wilco dearly, and I’m gonna tell you why.



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