Current Issue Details

Buy Current Issue

Reviews > CDs

Published: 2003/02/25
by Chris Gardner

No Depression (reissue) – Uncle TupeloStill Feel Gone (reissue) – Uncle TupeloMarch 16-20, 1992 (reissue) – Uncle Tupeloself-titled – Loose Fur

Columbia/Legacy 86427

Columbia/Legacy 86428

Columbia/Legacy 86426

Drag City 203

These three are prologue. Uncle Tupelo peaked with their send-off,
Anodyne, and accidentally birthed the alt-country scene on the way
there. They bristled with enough ragged punk energy to make the Stooges
proud and seethed at injustice the way Woody
would have wanted them to, with a straight back and an insolent sneer.
Tupelo always wore their hearts and influences on their sleeves – from
Husker Dram Parsons to the
Minutemen to the Byrds – and the sound they forged bore the influences
equally. The sound itself was a statement. It drew a correlation between
the attitudes of punk and protest folk and mongrelized the sounds. Their
name came to mean something. "It's kinda like Tupelo," suddenly became a
legitimate (or at least common) way to describe music, and bands scrabbled
to find a niche in the burgeoning alt-country movement Tupelo left in its
wake. The movement often captured the Tupelo sound, but it never got the

At the center of Uncle Tupelo lay Jay Farrar's patched and broken heart. He
was disgusted, pissed, and ready to fight about it. Jay's world was bleak,
populated by
down-hearted trudgers, people hell-bent on moving forward, struggling
everyday to keep giving a damn, limping towards their inglorious ends,
staving off the dread with a handle of whiskey. You always got the feeling
that Uncle Tupelo was up against something. The system, the machine, the
man – they all had it coming. They asked the big questions. Townes Van
Zandt said, "We all got holes to fill," and Tupelo was looking for filler,
whether it was love or whiskey or the things that rotten pit in your stomach
made you do to get by. They were searching for meaning and purpose in a
world where someone else held all the cards.

The story of Uncle Tupelo is largely the story of friendly rivals. Jay
Farrar and Jeff Tweedy were high school classmates who honed their
song-writing chops together,
pushing each other. Jay had a head start. By Tweedy's own admission, Jay
was the big picture guy. Through him, Tupelo tackled the plight of mankind
in a world where the few have everything. Jay's songs came to define
Tupelo, and Tweedy was often left trying to write songs that fit Jay's
style. Results were mixed.

Farrar dominates No Depression. All the band's songs are attributed
to the trio (Jeff, Jay, and Mike Hiedorn), but Farrar left such an indelible
lyrical stamp on
his work that the broader and better portion of the catalog is essentially
his. On the debut,
he is clearly the voice of the band. "Graveyard Shift" steps in with its
flat-picked verse and then kicks the door in with a bridge that hits like a
cement truck. The body blows from the rhythmsection make "Factory Belt"
work, but Jay's lyrics are still the guts of it. The marriage of country
honesty and punk fury on "Whiskey Bottle" is arresting. The characters,
like any true heroes from a real country song, are on the bottom, but the
distorted aggression of the chorus screams ragged, insurgent defiance rather
than the teary, broken submission.

This album sets the course for the band. "We're all looking for a life
worth living." "Some people have it all/And some have it all to gain."
"There's sorrow enough
for all/Just go into any bar and ask." These were Jay's grim realities,
which left Tweedy to
dash a little hope on the scene. "There's darkness in this life/but the
brighter side we also may view," he sings on "Flatness". It is hope for the
listener, but perhaps a suggestion for his brooding friend as well. Jeff's
"Screen Door" is the disc's only sunny offering. The acoustic number
celebrates the small town afternoon sitting around the porch, sweating, and
singing with friends. For the moment, "We don't care what happens outside
the screen door." In many ways, this draws the line between Jeff and Jay.
Tweedy's strength lay in capturing the moment or image, focusing on more
intimate, personal moments while Jay left the porch behind to fight the
dread and the man.

It is then Tweedy who kicks off Still Feel Gone with a failed lover
and Jay who follows with a small town man trapped in a dead end life.
Tweedy's "Gun" may be the
album's best track and is one of the few Tupelo cuts he packed with him on
Wilco's first tour. The narrator, clumsy in love, sits with an wounded
heart, wondering if he has what it takes to get back in the game. Jay brings
the universal gravity back quickly, matching Jeff's bumbling Romeo with a
broken barstool downer on "Looking For a Way Out". Jay still claims the
majority of the better tracks here, but despite a few standouts the songs
develop a sameness that was absent from No Depression.

"Will You Still Be Around" still holds the title of "U.T. song most likely
to be on a mix tape", but even the chiming guitars can't hide Jay's
defeatism. "Fall Down Easy" stands out, using a spare mandolin break to
contrast with a bludgeoning return for a final, blistering verse, and the
countrified shuffle of "True to Life" brings the crucial Jayism, "True to
life is assembly line sickness." Couple that line with, "The bar clock says
three a.m./Fallout shelter sign above the door," line from "Postcard", and
you have a perfect sense of his near apocalyptic vision of an industrial
wasteland. Jeff slowly comes further into his own here. He casts off a
tribute to D. Boon of Minutemen fame and closes the album with "If That's
Alright". The life as slide-show metaphor is a little tortured, but the
atmospheric timbre of the song is unlike anything in the Tupelo canon and
has more in common with early Wilco than Tupelo.

Still Feel Gone is the weakest (though perhaps the best titled) of
the Tupelo albums, so the bonus tracks included in this re-release are the
strongest. "Sauget Wind" is the bands' best-polished non-album single, and
the cover of the Soft Boys' "I Want to Destroy You" is irresistible. The
early demo versions of "Looking For a Way Out", "Watch Me Fall", and "If
That's Alright" make the difference though. Each provides a glimpse at the
band's studio process, and the difference between these cuts and the final
tracks is a credit to Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade, producer-engineers who
bring the same intensity to this album that they brought to Dinosaur Jr.'s
Bug. The layers of guitars are scalding, and the rhythm section has
a drive that gives the band its start-stop punch. The No Depression
bonus tracks are of a different variety. Most are cuts from early tapes and
collections before the first full length release on Rockville including an
early take of the Carter Family sing along, "No Depression" and Jay's
exquisite solo take on "Whiskey Bottle". They provide glimpses at the
band's growth rather than their process.

The last of the first round of re-releases (_Anodyne_ is slated for
later this spring) is the all acoustic affair, March 16-20 1992.
Produced by Peter Buck in Athens, the album, which gave drummer Mike Heidorn
very little to do, balances originals with re-arranged traditional material.
Tweedy and Farrar went to work studying the folk catalog. Jeff dug through
the record stacks and Jay combed the library. Their finds resonate from the
Louvin Brothers' "Atomic Power" (already a band staple by 1992) to
"Coalminers" to "Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down" to a starkly rendered
"Moonshiner", and it speaks well of their originals that they measure up to
the high standards. "Grindstone", with Heidorn alternating the tempo on
wire brushes, sets the high water mark, reminding all the curious that,
"There's plenty of dissent from these rungs below," but "Criminals" doesn't
lag far behind. Farrar lays out his dichotomy with the first line, "We got
two kinds here/Those who bleed the blood and those who work to will it." He
says of the latter, "they want us kinder and gentler at their feet,"
reversing the elder Bush's refrain.

Farrar finally breaks down the wall and writes a miner song
in "Shaky Ground", but Tweedy out does him with "Black Eye," again focusing
on the personal and leaving the political to Jay. Tweedy steps further into
his own with the pleading, banjo-driven "Wait Up" and "Fatal Wound", which
marries his personal tale with the prevailing melancholy of Tupelo and
serves as a harbinger of words to come from Tweedy. Still, it is Farrar
again whose version of "Lilli Schull" dominates the second half. Heidorn's
snare sounds like the measured sickle of death striking the ground as he
approaches the narrator, doomed to hang for the murder of the title
character. Fleshed out with piano and slide, the track is very nearly
perfect. The re-release includes the instrumental "Take My Word" and a
slow, jangly swing at "Grindstone" that lacks the tempo shifts that make the
final mix stand out. The demo of "Atomic Power" differs so little from the
album version that it is hardly necessary, but the Stooges "I Want to Be
Your Dog" is much more welcome, as is the live version of "Moonshiner",
though to be fair it also varies little from the album cut. As a whole,
March 16-20, 1992 may
be the most consistent album of the three, but damn I miss the electrified

With three albums on the shelves, Tupelo had still yet to peak. Jeff Tweedy
would not shoulder his fair share of the writing duties until
Anodyne, and it stands as their
best work due largely to his contributions. The acoustic instrumentation of
March record bled into the Anodyne sessions, and despite the
brief flash of "Chickamauga", the band would never return to the dynamics of
"Graveyard Shift", "Whiskey Bottle", or "Fall Down Easy". Through three
albums, Uncle Tupelo was still Jay Farrar's show. Tweedy offers some
memorable songs, but Farrar defines Uncle Tupelo. The lines and songs that
survive are largely his. Uncle Tupelo bears his stamp.

There is little or nothing about the first three Uncle Tupelo records to
suggest that Jeff Tweedy would grow into perhaps the most important voice in
rock and roll or even
the most important former member of Uncle Tupelo. Out of the gate, clearly
had the lead. Son Volt's Trace is a beauty of an album, and Wilco's
AM is, well, not. Trite bits of gooey not so goodness like "Casino
Queen" and "I Must Be High" scored well on the Jangle-meter, but lacked
staying power as songs. "Passenger Side" seems so tailor made for the
fraternity crowd that Robert Earl Keen could have written it. Things didn't
look so good for Jeff.

So where did it come from? "Gun", perhaps Jeff's best with Tupelo, is a
great song, but it doesn't in any way suggest that Tweedy would one day be
capable of "She's a Jar", "Shot in the Arm", or "I am Trying to Break Your
Heart". "If That's Alright" gave hints of the sounds to come just as "Fatal
Wound" gave hints of lyrics to come, but they are only hints in retrospect,
with the full idea yet to hatch. Somewhere between AM and Being
There, Tweedy made a Herculean leap (I'm thinking 'roids), and he has
seemingly improved with each album since. His struggle to free himself of
the gravity of Uncle Tupelo may have given us the throw away fluff on
AM, but it also gave us "Heavy Metal Drummer". Furthermore, the
years soaked in melancholy steeped him, and he was able to translate those
themes and
emotions to work that musically bears little more than passing resemblance
to his work with Uncle Tupelo.

His latest project is not actually his latest project. Loose Fur,
which finds Tweedy
collaborating with drummer Glenn Kotche, drummer for _Yankee Hotel
Foxtrot_, and new Sonic Youth member Jim O’Rourke (who mixed YHF),
was recorded before the much discussed disc and served as the first musical
meeting between Tweedy and Kotche. The disc as a whole is surprisingly
straight-forward. O'Rourke's avant-garde history led many to believe that
he would stretch Tweedy "out", but in practice O'Rourke's songs have a much
more traditional, classic rock sound to them then even Jeff's own.
"Laminated Cat", with lyrics by Jeff, is the big unfurl, a song that reveals
itself but slowly. It builds on an understated rhythm and runs through a
series often non-sequitur thoughts ("Candy left over from Halloween/Unified
theory of everything") before the bass and guitar finally rise and ufsold
themselves over many patient measures.

O'Rourke's "So Long" finds him plucking along on the acoustic while Kotche
and Tweedy break out around him. Kotche slaps at a jumbled rhythm
contraption, Tweedy plays the Gibson in such a way that it sound like mice
are trapped in the strings, struggling to extricate themselves, and O'Rourke
whispers, "If I said, 'I love you,' I was talking
to myself." They all fall in line for the chorus but lazily so. They sound
like a three piece
drunken marching band as they careen toward the finish line in slow motion
singing their
Da-da-das. "Liquidation Totale", an instrumental, wraps itself around
Jeff's beautiful bass-line, brings along a few rumbling drum fills, some
light xylophone work, and caps it off with a shimmering banjo before falling
completely apart, building toward entropy rather than cohesion.

Since Being There, Jeff Tweedy's music has felt important, and
Loose Fur is no exception. In the final analysis, this may not
be important music (it is merely very good, not great), but it
feels like it is. In comparison, Jay Farrar is still making the
music that felt important in 1990. Given that Uncle Tupelo bears Jay's
imprint more heavily than Jeff's, much of Tweedy's work there looks like a
man trying to make someone else's music.

Uncle Tupelo was seminal. They spawned an entire musical movement or, at
least, a wave. They inspired legions of devoted fans and disciples. They
are still name-checked in print once a month. It was music that took the
best of what was around, bred it, and gave birth to something individual and
significant. It did exactly what good music does, sprang forward from
varied influences.

It is amazing to think that they may one day be remembered as the band Jeff
Tweedy was in before Wilco.

Show 0 Comments