Radio Kings: Wilco

Last Tuesday the Minneapolis band known as the Jayhawks released their first album since 2003 (and their first with founder Mark Olson since the mid-1990s), leading me to take a break from typical Pietist Schoolman topics and propose the ten Jayhawks’ songs that would best introduce the band to a newbie.

The Jayhawks are perhaps my favorite hometown band. But tomorrow my favorite band, period, releases its newest album, The Whole Love. So let me again go off topic in order to wax rhapsodic about another group of coulda/shoulda been radio kings…

Wilco
Nels Cline and Jeff Tweedy of Wilco - Creative Commons (Greg Dunlap)

Wilco

As with the Jayhawks, I arrived at listening to Wilco via a strange path. Growing up, I listened to almost no pop music. (I went to a birthday party in 3rd grade and my friends — friends? — decided it would be fun to dress me up like Boy George. “What’s a Culture Club?”, I asked, as they put a red chapeau on my head. Then I asked who Michael Jackson was and my social status was cemented for ten years.) Then I got to college and suffered a profound case of homesickness at a time when, off all bands, Soul Asylum had a huge radio/MTV hit. Astonished that my hometown was producing popular music (“Who’s Prince?”), I dug into SA’s back catalog and quickly realized (a) that they had produced material much, much better than anything on Grave Dancers Union and (b) that they weren’t nearly as good as The Replacements. Then I taught myself to play guitar and began work on a Paul Westerberg biopic screenplay, but that’s another post…

Learning that Soul Asylum’s guitarist played in a Minneapolis supergroup called Golden Smog, I bought their first LP and found out that the best singers/songwriters in the group were Gary Louris from the Jayhawks, and someone named Jeff Tweedy from something called Wilco. (The two of them collaborated on the song that inspires the title of this mini-series of posts.)

This was 1995, when Wilco had one middling album under its belt (A.M.) but was about to produce its breakthrough (Being There). Since then, it’s probably fair to say that Wilco has become one of the most acclaimed American bands of its era, both on the basis of its recording output and (especially in the last few years) live performances. As I rattle through ten songs to introduce the band, I’ll try to give some of this history to those unfamiliar with the remarkable story.

And to give you some indication of just how rabid Wilco’s fanbase is… For each song, I can let you know how often the band (or Tweedy solo) has played it in concert — thanks to a website called WilcoBase.

“New Madrid” (Uncle Tupelo, Anodyne, 1993 — played at 24% of Wilco shows since 1994

First, a little prehistory… In the late 1980s the best band in Belleville, Illinois was Uncle Tupelo, featuring two high school friends: Jay Farrar (vocals/guitar) and Jeff Tweedy (bass/vocals). Blending interests in country and punk, UT produced No Depression (named for the Carter Family song they covered), the most important album in the “alternative country” movement that the Jayhawks had been pioneering to the north; indeed, a magazine dedicated to UT and similar bands was named after the album. The band produced three more albums before Farrar quit in 1994: the No Depression rehash Still Feel Gone (with Gary Louris adding some guitar); the austere March 16-20, 1992 (produced by REM guitarist Peter Buck); and Anodyne, recorded with new UT drummer Ken Coomer and bassist John Stirratt.

Uncle Tupelo, AnodyneIt’s hard to pick a single Tweedy song from the Uncle Tupelo years. “Gun” leads off the second album, and was the first indication that Tweedy had it in him to become a great songwriter; “Wait Up” is a standout on March 16-20, 1992; and “The Long Cut” (played by the band, just months before it broke up, during its national TV premiere early in the run of Conan O’Brien’s NBC show) might be the best rock song Tweedy wrote for UT. Anodyne also has “No Sense in Lovin’,” which is pretty much the first Wilco song (Farrar is barely present on it, and its sound anticipates the country-rock of A.M.).

But I’ll go with “New Madrid” both because it’s easily the most played Tupelo song in Wilco’s history (over 90 times more than “We’ve Been Had,” also off Anodyne) and because it reveals Tweedy’s growing ability to synthesize obscure cultural references (“Mr. Browning has a prediction“), enigmatically somber lyrics (“Death won’t even be still / Caroms over the landfill / Buries us all in its broken back”), and simple but indelible melodies, impossible not to sing along to.

“Box Full of Letters” (A.M., 1994) — played at 19% of shows

Wilco, A.M.It’s easy to get the impression that the band spent a long time feeling somewhat embarrassed by its first, rushed effort; look on WilcoBase and you find that a lot of A.M. songs went largely unplayed until recently. But it’s got a lot of good songs on it: the gentle “Dash 7”; the album closer “Too Far Apart” (not the last Tweedy lyric to push against being boxed into a genre — how many country-rock albums ask “Is it really punk rock / Like the party line”?); the pretty, waltzy “It’s Just That Simple,” which hints at an alternative universe in which John Stirratt was allowed to be a secondary songwriter in Wilco (as it is, it’s the only song in the entire recorded catalog without a Tweedy songwriting credit or lead vocal — you can hear Stirratt and Wilco keyboardist-guitarist Pat Sansone in their side project, The Autumn Defense); “Passenger Side,” the best song ever written about having your driver’s license suspended; and the sheer fun of “Casino Queen” (on which a drunken Brian Henneman — the Bottle Rockets frontman brought in to add Skynyrdy guitar that counter-balances the twangy acoustic instrumentation from Max Johnston and pedal steel guitarist Lloyd Maines — is caught on tape knocking together the two bottles of gin he’d just emptied).

But at the risk of putting too many obvious choices onto this list, I’ll stick with the catchy single “Box Full of Letters.” Not just because it’s basically a break-up song about music (“I got a lotta your records / In a separate stack / Some things that I might like to hear / But I guess I’ll give them back”), but because it was actually the first Wilco song I heard on the radio, and I gave my friend Allan grief for liking it. (“Dude, that’s country!”) Sorry, Al. You were right.

“Misunderstood” and “Sunken Treasure” (Being There, 1996) — 47% and 27%, respectively

And now it gets really hard to pick. Being There was the first Wilco album I bought, and (much like the Jayhawks’ Tomorrow the Green Grass) it remains my sentimental favorite even though it’s too long (a double-album the second time you record?) and isn’t hugely representative of the band as it sounds now.

Wilco, Being ThereBut I could play its first four songs on an endless loop while I ate coconut after coconut on some desert island. “Misunderstood” sets the precedent for countless Wilco songs to follow: a deceptively mundane lyric about disconnection (“I want to thank you all / For nothing”) between lovers, friends, or the artist and audience, whose slight melody somehow survives the periodic blasts of noise (it starts with the band members playing instruments they don’t know how to play) that reinforce the difficulty of communication; “Far, Far Away,” a bittersweet ballad set in Chicago, the band’s adopted hometown; “Monday,” a horn-laden nod to the Mick Taylor-era Rolling Stones; and the best single (and video) the band released, “Outtasite (Outta Mind),” featuring licks from new guitarist Jay Bennett.

Then from the second side, a quiet song that (compared to “Misunderstood”) stays quiet: “Sunken Treasure.” In his book about Wilco, Learning How to Die, critic Greg Kot cites the song as a turning point in Tweedy’s songwriting (and the band’s recording style), moving from trying to write “would-be standards” to a more personal vein. Tweedy agreed: while it was easy to tell the rest of the band that “Monday” was “kind of an upbeat Stones stomp,” he recalled that “I didn’t know how to describe ‘Sunken Treasure ahead of time. So I loosely mapped it out. I’d play it once for everybody, and then let them write down the chords, and then I’d show them the alternate parts that might happen: an atonal chord progression in the middle of the song, but I’m not sure if it’s going to happen, or when, or if it’ll happen more than once.” To Kot, it introduced to Tweedy & Co. “the notion that writing songs was about leaving enough space for the unexpected to happen” (pp. 112-13), which is a key theme in the next two Wilco albums. But first…

“California Stars” (Billy Bragg & Wilco, Mermaid Avenue) — 53%
“Remember the Mountain Bed” (Billy Bragg & Wilco, Mermaid Avenue Vol. II) — 10%

Before finishing the band’s third album, Wilco joined forces with British folk singer-songwriter Billy Bragg to record a series of previously known unknown Woody Guthrie lyrics set to music by Bragg or Tweedy (the latter often with Bennett, nearing the height of his influence with the band). Setting aside the Bragg numbers (best when he stops his political posturing and sings about “Walt Whitman’s Niece” or “Ingrid Bergman”), the fourteen Tweedy-sung Guthrie songs spread across the two Mermaid Avenue albums make up a collection that I’d take over two or three of the actual Wilco albums, so I’ll give them two spots on this list of ten.

Billy Bragg & Wilco, Mermaid Avenue“California Stars” is an easy choice from the first MM album; it’s got one of Tweedy’s best melodies and has transcended the Guthrie origins to become instantly identifiable as a Wilco song (the 5th most played in its catalog). “Hoodoo Voodoo” is catchy nonsense that I hope my children will enjoy as much as I do. “At My Window Sad and Lonely” is heartbreaking (Guthrie the merchant marine sailor longing for his lover) and tenderly played. (It’s also one of the few songs I got right when I put off dissertation work in order to transcribe Wilco tunes. Unfortunately, I was still learning guitar when I botched the chord progression on “I Got You (At the End of the Century”). Even more unfortunately, I put my actual name to the work, so it’s possible a Google search for me will turn these up.) From the second volume, “Airline to Heaven” I’ll certainly discuss in my third post, and “Secret of the Sea” is what Wilco would sound like if Jay Bennett had ever been totally in control (instead of only partly in control, as he was on the next Wilco album proper).

Billy Bragg & Wilco, Mermaid Avenue, Vol. IIBut for a second pick I’ll go with a personal favorite that isn’t often played by the band, but is among the best band performances recorded. “Remember the Mountain Bed” (which doesn’t have Bragg on it at all and instead includes piano from new multi-instrumentalist Leroy Bach) is a sprawling tale of, um, canoodling in a forest. The lyrics are Guthrie’s (“There on our mountain bed of leaves / We learned life’s reason why / People laugh and love and dream / They fight, they hate to die”), but by all accounts (Tweedy’s included) working on this and the other songs profoundly shaped Tweedy’s writing for years to come.

And while we’re on the topic of recordings that don’t perfectly fit the Wilco canon… Tweedy continued to contribute to Golden Smog recordings. Best of all: the straightforward ode to his family in “Please Tell My Brother,” off Weird Tales. Supposedly it was recorded as a minimal guitar/voice demo by Tweedy, expecting that the rest of the band members would overlay their own parts, but they decided to leave it unadorned.

“A Shot in the Arm” (Summerteeth, 1999) — 71%

Wilco, SummerteethThere are some Wilco fans who think Summerteeth is the best album the band ever released. It’s definitely the best album that the late Jay Bennett ever released, his Beatles/Beach Boys obsession yielding sunny musical accompaniment for Tweedy’s increasingly dark lyrics. (Two songs — “She’s a Jar” and “Via Chicago” — seem to be from the point of view of characters not merely experiencing marital problems but contemplating violence against women. The former ends, “She begs me not to hit her”; the latter begins, “I dreamed about killing you again last night / And it felt alright to me.”) But it’s also the least Wilco-y album the band released: not because it moved so far from the “alternative country” label (“What you once were isn’t what / You want to be any more,” Tweedy sings in the song I’m recommending), which shouldn’t have surprised anyone listening to Being There, but because it was basically a Tweedy/Bennett project put together with Pro Tools.

Which doesn’t mean it’s not a good album, just not necessarily much of a Wilco album. There’s a reason that only one of its songs shows up among the twenty most played in Wilco’s history.

But that song, “A Shot in the Arm,” has been played live by Wilco more often than any other song (613 times and counting), and understandably. Beyond the insanely catchy tune, it’s got one of Tweedy’s best, most economical lyrics. Not as dense as the two stunners mentioned above, it’s like Tweedy dared himself to say in one phrase, or at most a couplet, what he might have wanted to stretch out over a verse, or a whole song: the opening “The ashtray says / You were up all night”; Tweedy, as often, making music about music, “We fell in love / In the key of C… You followed me down / The neck to D”; and the “Bloodier than blood” refrain. At the same time that Tweedy’s former partner, Jay Farrar, was squandering the early brilliance of Son Volt’s Trace as he recycled the same ideas over and over, Tweedy was becoming a genuinely great pop songwriter.

“Jesus, Etc.” (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, 2002) — 64%

I’m not even going to try to sum up the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot story. Key points to know: (1) Wilco got dumped by their label and were treated like martyrs — martyrs, that is, who capitalized on their martyrdom to sign a better record deal and skyrocket in popularity, and (2) fired first Ken Coomer and then Jay Bennett along the way; (3) Jeff Tweedy had migraines, and the beginnings of a prescription drug problem. (If you need a little more detail, click here. If you want a lot more detail, watch the documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.)

Wilco, Yankee Hotel FoxtrotI’m one of those Wilco fans who likes the album but suspects that its greatness (it topped the Village Voice critics’ poll and has made several top 100 albums lists) is more a requirement of the narrative that surrounds it than an honest evaluation of its merits. But it’s still wonderful on many counts. The radio metaphor that holds the album together (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot refers to a shortwave recording that gets sampled in “Poor Places”) actually works: listening to the album feels like driving home at 2am after ending a relationship and desperately scanning the radio dial, praying that some beautiful sound will suddenly emerge from the static between frequencies. And certain songs are as good as anything else in the catalog: the strange opening track that makes “assassin” a verb; the “war on war” mantra of, well, “War on War”; the juxtapositions of “Ashes of American Flags” (“All my lies are always wishes”; “I want a good life / With a nose for things / A fresh wind and bright sky / To enjoy my suffering”); and the hummable nostalgia of “Heavy Metal Drummer”; and best of all, “Jesus, Etc.”

I left out point (4) of the YHF saga on purpose: the album was originally meant to be released on September 11, 2001. Knowing that (and seeing the twin Chicago towers on its cover) tempts the listener to read all sorts of things into “Jesus, Etc.” that don’t need to be there for the song to be great. Lyrics like “Tall buildings shake / Voices escape singing sad, sad songs / Tuned to chords strung down your cheeks” and “Voices whine / Skyscrapers are scraping together” were as evocative when Tweedy wrote them pre-9/11 as when he continues to sing them ten years after.

“At Least That’s What You Said” (A Ghost is Born, 2004) — 33%

Wilco, A Ghost is BornGiven the hoopla surrounding its predecessor, it’s not surprising that A Ghost is Born was viewed by some as a letdown. I actually prefer to listen to it over Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (skipping over the pointless noise of “Less Than You Think,” of course). Frankly, neither album is all that joyful, but “Hummingbird” is probably the best pop song in Tweedy’s repertoire, and as a historian who works one floor beneath this department at a Christian college, the opening lines of “Theologians” never fail to make me smile (“Theologians don’t know nothing / About my soul / About my soul”).

The high point for me is the first track, “At Least That’s What You Said.” The lyrics again paint the picture of a troubled marriage, but it’s the extended instrumental that follows that really impresses. Temporarily in between virtuosic lead guitarists, Tweedy pulls that duty himself – and does a good Neil Young impression. But all players are outstanding. John Stirratt’s bass playing is simultaneously more forceful and more melodic, and Glenn Kotche’s machine-gunning drums meld seamlessly with Tweedy’s guitar. I saw Wilco live around the time Ghost was recorded, and remember thinking that they weren’t half-bad without a guitar hero. Of course, at that point I’d never heard of Nels Cline, who joined the band in 2004 and plays on this version of “ALTWYS.”

“Wilco (the song)” (Wilco: The Album, 2009) — 10%

Wilco, the albumWell, I knew I wouldn’t be able to cover the whole catalog in ten songs, but rather than go back through and make tough edits, I’ll just skip over the weakest album Wilco put out (Sky Blue Sky — these are relative adjectives, understand) and end with the opening song on Wilco (the album), appropriately titled “Wilco (the song)”. (If I had a second song to use here, I’d go with “Country Disappeared” on lyrics alone.)

I fear that this whole post sounds more like it was written by a critic than a fan (that’s why I don’t normally let myself write on such topics), so let me close with a song written explicitly for Wilco fans (“Wilco / Wilco / Wilco will love you, baby”) as an “aural arms open wide / A sonic shoulder for you to cry on.”

<<Read the first post in this series          Read the final post in this series>>


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