No Depression for Wilco and Son Volt

{mosimage} Let’s say it at the outset: It’s totally unfair and totally unnecessary to compare the new albums from Wilco and Son Volt. Comparing Jeff Tweedy’s and Jay Farrar’s bands has been done to death, and 12 years after Uncle Tupelo’s breakup, they don’t have anything to do with each other. It’s a lazy little trick, backward-looking, unfair to both guys, and their new stuff deserves to be judged on their own merits.

Too bad, because Uncle Tupelo’s records sound every bit as great now as they did then. Nah — they sound better. And if Tweedy and Farrar never wrote another single decent song between them after Tupelo’s final album, Anodyne, that’d have been fine. But they did, by the truckload. They still do. And while Farrar’s Son Volt records languish in a nowhere-land of critical and commercial apathy, Tweedy’s Wilco got cast as America’s Radiohead — a band that could do no critical wrong, album after album, while their music got less accessible, more experimental and a hell of a lot less catchy.

2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was Wilco’s OK Computer, the perfect intersection of the band’s past pop sensibilities and growing studio experimentalism. Wilco’s public recognition grew, as did their tours, and a successful documentary, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, told a compelling story. Making that kind of successful stylistic leap generates a lot of good will, but it also lets the band get away with some weaker stuff that they might not have been able to before.

So by the time A Ghost Is Born came out in 2004, it was safer to call it genius than to just be annoyed with Sonic Youth–like 10-minute guitar drones and a lack of any songs you’d remember once the CD was flipped off.

Wilco’s new album, Sky Blue Sky, is definitely a step back from those perilous cliffs of artiness. The opener, “Either Way,” is about as straightforward as Tweedy’s ever been. Gently plucked guitar, a light organ backup, and even strings roll in. Why, it’s as if Tweedy were betting that FM radio was set to be the next big thing.

{mosimage}Once in an interview, Tweedy demurred when the writer claimed that he was one of the best songwriters alive. “I’ve never written a hit,” he responded. There’s nothing wrong with writing hits, and on Sky Blue Sky, Tweedy seems to have that goal in mind. If only the songs really measured up to the best of FM radio’s heyday. Tweedy seems to be trying to go after the light feel of 1970s music, but he ends up channeling a little too much of the Grateful Dead and not enough Three Dog Night. Borrowing some of Steely Dan’s jazzy keyboard touches doesn’t really help much either. A step back from self-conscious experimentalism it may be, but it’s not back to the territory of pop gems from Being There or Summer Teeth.

Maybe Wilco’s just played the Bonnaroo fest one too many times, because there’s a hippie-ish jam-band haze around these songs that makes them sound like they were written by the whole band and recorded in their rehearsal space (they were).

Sky Blue Sky isn’t a terrible record, but it commits the one sin that I’ve never heard committed before on a Wilco album: It’s boring. Maybe they’ve been exasperating before, but never boring.

It’s quite possible that if I forced myself to listen to Sky Blue Sky 10 times in a row, I’d pick up on all sorts of subtleties and nuance, it might grow on me, and then I’d have a deep appreciation of the record. But part of the joy of earlier Wilco albums was that there was no need to learn to love them. You put on Being There or AM and you knew right away what the charms of those records were.

{mosimage}Not that I should be comparing these two albums, mind you, but after just one listen, I knew that Son Volt’s new album, The Search, is the one I’ll be coming back to again and again. Don’t judge it by the opener, “Slow Hearse.” Skip that one altogether and dive into “The Picture,” as catchy and upbeat musically as it is pissed-off lyrically. Picking up where he left off on the last Son Volt record (Okemah and the Melody of Riot, 2005), Farrar’s not shying away from the mess that our country is in to focus only on one-on-one relationships. He’s angry, and it shows, but he’s never ham-fisted about it.

Farrar pulls out all sorts of musical tricks on The Search. There are live horns on “The Picture,” backward-looped guitars on “Circadian Rhythm” and string sections on “Underground Dream.” It’s not what you’d expect from the guy who so completely embraced the traditional country style (and kept his No Depression cred firmly intact) on early albums like Trace and Straightaways, but it works and sounds great here, and it’s as good as anything Farrar has made, well, since Uncle Tupelo broke up.

{mosimage}The ghost of Uncle Tupelo will haunt Farrar and Tweedy forever, and they’ll embrace it or resent it in the same way that all pop stars embrace and resent their early work that certain types of fans keep obsessing over. Tupelo’s ghosts have been active lately on the Internet. A batch of live shows and other bootlegs have been making the rounds of certain MP3 blogs of questionable repute, and two in particular really show off why the past is such a tough thing to leave alone. The first is a live radio set recorded in July 1990 at WFMU in New Jersey. Eleven songs, all acoustic, with no DJ grilling the guys between songs: It’s a lovely set. Near the end, Tweedy harmonizes with Farrar’s lead vocal on a languid cover of the Flying Burrito Brothers’ “Sin City.” You wish it had 20 verses so that it could just keep on going.

The other bootleg that’s been showing up is the band’s final show, appropriately in St. Louis, across the river from where they grew up. The poster for the show read, “St. Louis’ 4th Best Country Band,” the kind of tongue-in-cheek modesty that made Uncle Tupelo so endearing. Most of the lead vocals here are by Tweedy — Farrar had already made the decision to leave the band, and there was probably more bad blood flowing than what’s discernible from listening. It’s no The Last Waltz, but it’s a powerful show with good sound quality, and worth checking out if you can find it, especially the encore cover of Neil Young’s “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.”

WILCO | Sky Blue Sky | Nonesuch

SON VOLT | The Search | Transmit Sound/Legacy

Wilco – "What Light"

Son Volt – "The Search" Live from The Mystic Theater Petaluma, California 3/31/07

Uncle Tupelo, 1989, from the St. Louis cable show Critical Mass


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