by Alan Sculley
Jeff Tweedy would be the first person to say Wilco is an intentional continuation of Uncle Tupelo, the late, great Belleville band that he led, along with guitarist/singer Jay Farrar.
After all, four of the musicians in Wilco played on the final Tupelo record, Anodyne. And Tweedy even says he can trace the direction of Wilco's new CD, "A.M.," to a song on Anodyne.
"We always feel like 'No Sense in Lovin' is really kind of like the first Wilco track, in a weird way," Tweedy said. "It's the same band basically, and in the overall vibe and feeling and recording it was really closer to what we're doing now than to a lot of the stuff Uncle Tupelo was doing at the time."
Despite these similarities and his pride in Uncle Tupelo's accomplishments, Tweedy said that he and the other band members felt liberated by closing the book on Tupelo.
"I don't know," he said, "writing material that you knew was going to be on an Uncle Tupelo record -- after four records, there was a natural editing process that was going into it at that point. Certain things, I think, would kind of be tossed out before they ever became a song, just on the idea that it wouldn't fit in on an Uncle Tupelo record or didn't really work next to Jay's songs -- things like that.
"I think, going into this record --though stuff probably doesn't sound that different -- it was liberating in that you could put anything on the Wilco record and that's what Wilco would become."
The most prominent new dimension in the Wilco sound is apparent from the outset of A.M., as the band tears into three wonderfully catch tunes: "I Must Be High," "Casino Queen," and "Box Full of Letters." Each of these songs, while possessing some of the rocking country flavor of Uncle Tupelo, also has a poppy sound and a full-bodied tone that contrasts noticeably with Tupelo's style.
The rest of A.M. settles into a more spare, rougher hewn sound that will be familiar to any Uncle Tupelo fan, with songs such as "Shouldn't be Ashamed," "Passenger Side," and "Pick Up the Change" maintaining the quality established by the opening tracks.
The added pop edge-especially on the opening three tunes -- is not altogether surprising, considering that Tweedy was usually considered to be the member of the Tweedy-Farrar team who brought that element to Uncle Tupelo. "Definitely, I think, yeah, history would say that. 'Gun' is probably one of the more poppier things that we did early on," Tweedy said, mentioning a track from Tupelo's second record, Still Feel Gone.
"And I think 'Long Cut' was more pop. I think a lot of the stuff on Anodyne, like 'No Sense in Loving,' was more pop than some of the stuff we had approached before."
The quality of A.M. is sure to please longtime Uncle Tupelo fans, who were disappointed to lose what was arguably the best band to emerge from the St.Louis area in recent years. Farrar's decision to leave last spring came at a surprising point in the group's career.
After building a solid grass-roots following with three independently released albums -- No Depression (1990), Still Feel Gone (1991), and the acoustic March 16-20, 1992 -- Uncle Tupelo had landed a deal with Warner's Sire/Reprise label. Anodyne was the band's debut for the label, and the backing of the powerful company, coupled with a stack of glowing reviews, seemingly had the band poised for a commercial breakthrough.
"It was surprising timing, that's for sure, but in the long run it made sense. I'm not unhappy about it now," Tweedy said.
To this day, Tweedy says he's not sure why Farrar, who has been making a record with a new band, quit Uncle Tupelo.
"I think it was a personal decision for Jay, but he wasn't very communicative about anything to us, which was fairly normal for Jay," Tweedy said. "So nobody really questioned it too much. I mean, a lot of things that were used as explanations were fairly contradictory so I really wouldn't be able to comment on it."
The lack of communication may seem surprising, considering that Tweedy and Farrar were longtime friends and seemed to have a strong camaraderie that went beyondthe band. Appearances, however, were deceiving.
"Jay and I were more inclined to work on music together than talk about anything personal or listen to music together," Tweedy explained. "It was sort of a friendship built on that more than anything, more than normal buddy kind of stuff. I don't talk to Jay very much [now]. In fact, I really haven't talked to him since we did that last show."
What Tweedy did know almost as soon as Farrar said he wanted out was that he and the remaining members of Uncle Tupelo -- drummer Ken Coomer, lap steel/fiddle/mandolin player Max Johnston, and bassist John Stirratt -- liked the music they had been making and didn't want to stop. Guitarist Jay Bennett, formerly of the group Titanic Love Affair, has since been added to the Wilco lineup.
"By the time we broke up, we'd kind of known Jay was leaving for three months almost," Tweedy said. "So we were all pretty used to the idea, and at that point we were all pretty sure that we wanted to keep playing music together. So we were basically looking forward, trying to stay focused on things that were going to happen in the future.
"We were fairly confident from the indications we'd gotten from the label that we still had a deal and we could make records for Warner Bros. That was nice to know. We didn't really spend a whole lot of time mourning the whole thing. We sort of got together and started working on demos and what not about two months after Uncle Tupelo broke up."
The absence of Farrar would seemingly mean major change in Tweedy's role in the band. Where he and Farrar shared songwriting and frontman roles in Tupelo, Tweedy is now Wilco's undisputed leader and writer of nearly all the material. Stirratt's "It's Just That Simple," is the only non-Tweedy track on A.M..
The shift in responsibility, Tweedy said, is not as significant as it appears. "Probably from about the second record on, it was not that much different in Uncle Tupelo," he said. "Songs were really basically written apart from each other, and when we would get in the studio, the recording side would switch to whoever basically wrote the song, although...there's definitely collaboration on the arrangements and stuff like that.
"I fell like that's really the same [in Wilco], except that I have twice as many songs on the record," he said, a chuckle punctuating his comment.
"I mean, I feel like the creative side really comes from everybody. I don't write parts for anybody. I like the songs to sound like a song on an acoustic guitar. Basically they can be played in that context. But I always like it better when everybody contributes. I really love everybody in the band and trust them all and know when they find their part, it's going to be something I never would have thought of. That's where the band works the best."
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Chuck Taggart (e-mail chuck)