Published April 1995, The Aquarian Weekly
As one of the mainstays of the commercially ignored, yet critically revered, Uncle Tupelo, vocalist-guitarist Jeff Tweedy wasn't about to hold his breath waiting for radio play of his newest venture, Wilco.
But, surprisingly enough, the Sire/Reprise CD, A.M. is going over well with radio programmers; and Jeff and the band created a major buzz at Austin's recent South by Southwest Music Conference that resulted in footage being shown on MTV; a tie-in with popular country-rockers, the Jayhawks; a favorable review in Entertainment Weekly Magazine; and The Houston Press likening Tweedy to "the new Paul Westerberg".
In the span of one whirlwind month, Tweedy and Wilco have garnered more attention than Uncle Tupelo (which he co-led with guitarist Jay Farrar) did more than four albums and seven-odd years of virtually unheard, yet often brilliant music.
Uncle Tupelo was touring in support of their 1993 Sire/Reprise major label debut (and fourth and final album), Anodyne; when Farrar announced that, due to "musical and artistic differences," he was leaving the band at the end of the tour.
"We knew that Jay was leaving about three months before the 'official' last Uncle Tupelo show," Tweedy remembered during a recent interview, "and we all (drummer Ken Coomer; bassist/guitarist John Stirratt; and multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston) had sort of an intensive bonding thing goin' on during those last gigs. We didn't have any plans to form a new band, but, everybody was determined not to sit around getting bummed." He pauses for a moment and adds, "Tupelo finally ended in April (1994) and we recorded more than half of A.M. in July - so there really was no long period of mourning."
"We'd all played together on Anodyne," Tweedy continues, "so it wasn't like we were forming a new band - we just took a month off and then got back into it - minus Jay. The familiarity and ease we had with each other allowed lots of room for new ideas and new ways to play them - part of our sound was still Uncle Tupelo - but, there was a looser, more relaxed element to it."
The resulting album, steered by Tweedy's penchant for affecting melodies, thoughtful lyrics and mellow rasp of a voice; runs the gamut from the twangy power pop of "Box Full Of Letters," the crunchy, Neil Young-like sonic bite of "Shouldn't Be Ashamed" and the thoughtful, country pop of "Pick Up The Change," on down to the white-trash, slightly Cracker-esque "Passenger Side."
"I don't ever ... I don't like to write my lyrics down - I don't write 'em down until the label tells me I have to, to see if we need a Parental Advisory," Tweedy grouses about his songwriting process, "I always get bummed when I finally have to write them out. The songs? I usually just hang out, play the guitar and try to let the lyrics flow out semiconsciously," he explains. "Snippets, thoughts, phrases, feelings and made-up stuff kind of come together and go into the process. I don't really like to 'explain' songs - they just are."
When pressed for detail, Tweedy will allow that "Passenger Side" was inspired by a $300 used Toyota Corolla.
"The entire passenger side of the car was smashed in," he laughs, "So bad, that you couldn't open the door. I wound up using the phrase 'passenger side' to people a lot ... 'If you're going in my car you can't use the ...' I liked the way it sounded, 'passenger side,' and that's the basis for the song," said Tweedy.
"The record kind of gets weirder, darker as it goes on. People ask, 'Is such and such song about Jay?' Well, I imagine that if you're looking for stuff, you'll imagine you hear it," he chuckles. "I felt like writing songs about relationships for a while, anyway."
"I think that with Wilco," he ponders. "And during the last few years of Tupelo, I really started to get the hang of it ... that playing music doesn't have to be all the things you hate. I started thinking that, actually, it could be a lot of fun."
"In the early days, it just seemed like ... such a struggle because of ..." Tweedy pauses, "well, the type of music we did on the first two Tupelo albums really hurts your ears after awhile."
"What I'm doing now, with Wilco, feels like such a fresh start. I feel weird talking about it that way," he laughs, "like a sports term. 'I feel totally rejuvenated, completely enthusiastic, my knee feels stronger than ever - and I'm ready to play.'"
-- AL MUZER