By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
"I CAN'T STAND it when you get so intense," Jeff Tweedy sang on "No Sense in Lovin'" on Uncle Tupelo's swan song Anodyne. The song was a semi-sympathetic brush-off directed to a self-hating lover--but it also said something about the singer's creative worldview. Like McCartney to Lennon or Grant Hart to Bob Mould, Tweedy was his group's big heart, Jay Farrar its pining soul; when the men went their separate ways, their new outfits pretty much reflected this. Wilco's AM was a good-natured, country rock record--nothing too intense, nothing too messy--with propulsive if predictable hooks and at least one song ("Box Full Of Letters") that lived up to its retro pop radio ambition. For all its unmoored, one-note melancholy, Son Volt's Trace aimed for an emotional intensity and found it, mostly in the indelible burr of Farrar's voice--and was the more affecting record for it.
But the major question posed by both records--which is probably the question that exploded Uncle Tupelo, and remains a question ignored by the alternative country "movement" overall, Palace's Will Oldham or Vic Chestnutt aside--is how to reconcile past and present in a way that goes beyond fuzzy nostalgia and duh-yeah irony. Wilco's Being There (which could just as well have been titled Being Here) sits in a room with that question, filling its glass, packing its bong, and wrestling it to the ground when it refuses to give up its answers. As alt-country goes, it feels like a landmark record, both for the way it locates the usual pleasures, and how it winds up rendering the genre tag meaningless.
In its shaggy way, Being There is a very self-conscious record--self-consciously self-conscious, even. Take the double-disc format. At 76 minutes, the music could easily fit on a single CD. But double albums carry a certain old-fashioned formal significance, and the group takes advantage of the form. There is disc one's "outtasite (outta mind)" and disc two's mirror-take "outta mind (outta sight)," opposing versions of the same chimey pop tune in which the country-rock rave-up (#1) goes up against a Brian Wilson studio-pop confection (#2), resulting in a draw. Then there are the lead tracks, disc one's "misunderstood" and disc two's "sunken treasure." Both arrive like self-contained grudge matches, each clocking in more than six minutes long, with high-tension guitar noise and unsettling dissonance jousting with unashamedly pretty, though shakey, melodies.
These sorts of musical ambivalences and conflicts--old vs. new, pop music vs. roots music--surface throughout the record, sometimes overtly (the sci-fi synth intro smashed by righteous guitars on "i got you (at the end of the century)") and sometimes subtly (on "red eyed and blue," a modern studio recording lament that complains "We've got solid-state technology/ Tapes on the floor/ Some some songs we can't afford to play"). But the struggles on Being There come off as realistic and heartfelt despite its artifice. Or, arguably, because of it: Amidst the noise outbursts and studio detritus, the homespun melodies sound bright, essential, earned.
Wilco have made a brave but imperfect record--it's less Exile On Main Street than Sandinista!, defined by experiments that sometimes win and sometimes flop (see "the lonely 1," whose fan-centered perspective verges on the maudlin). That they sidelined longtime partner Brian Paulson and self-produced a record more studio-centered than anything they've attempted makes Being There even more impressive (though I'm sure the various engineers earned their keep). Tweedy's big risk, of course, is in alienating a constituency that may be more conservative than they'd like to think. But from the sound of things here, and considering Tweedy's recent entry into fatherhood, one supposes he's less worried about pleasing the old No Depression crowd. It's just funny that for a guy who always seemed to like his pleasures simple and upbeat, it took settling down with a family to inspire a record so unsimple, offbeat, and yes, intense. (Will Hermes)
Wilco performs on Nov. 23 & 24 at First Avenue.
WHERE WAS WEEZER when I needed them? When I was 16 and scrounging for tunes to blast on the way to the homecoming game? Fortunately, this sorta stuff still works for me--so I'll forgive them for being born too late. After two years, the group is back with more infuriatingly infectious melodies, once again making those ambushed key changes and calculated structural builds look as easy as passing out at a kegger.
For Pinkerton, the band dropped Ric Ocasek as producer, handling the duties themselves--Weezer bassist and Rentals lead man Matt Sharp is a production vet after sharing the duties on his moog-flavored Return of the Rentals album. And even if Pinkerton lacks some of their debut's crunchy pop gloss, the immediacy of the new release actually makes the group's first seem mannered by comparison. But don't expect the Rentals' sweetness here: These tunes are all Rivers Cuomo, a self-consciously libidinous Ivy Leaguer with a penchant for deceptively spare lyrics and rock-out choruses. Nothing on Pinkerton packs the disturbing pop pathos of "Say it Ain't So"; "Across the Sea" approaches its complexity, as Cuomo allows his guilt-soaked, detached lust for the young author of a fan letter to snowball into a knowingly futile plea for real intimacy. His vocals, meanwhile, are more adventurous this time around, showing by turns the influence of Freddy Mercury, Steve Malkmus and even a little G Love.