Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Uncle Tupelo was a short-lived but influential indie/country/rock band from Belleville, Illinois in the early ‘90s consisting of Jay Farrar (vocals, guitar & other stringed instruments), Jeff Tweedy (vocals, bass & acoustic guitar) and Mike Heidorn (drums). I didn’t become aware of them until 1995, after they split up, and they formed two successful groups: Son Volt (Farrar) and Wilco (Tweedy), both of which released their debut albums that year. In the early ‘90s, my musical universe was vastly expanding, as I was a few years out of college, working a full-time job and spending most of my wages on records & CDs. A genre that was just gaining traction at the time went by various names: alt-country, Americana and roots-rock among them. My first exposure to this music was the Minneapolis band The Jayhawks, whose 1992 album Hollywood Town Hall remains one of my all-time favorites. They blended elements of the classic country I grew up with (Hank Williams, Johnny Cash) with unique harmonies and Neil Young-inspired guitar playing. I’m not sure why Uncle Tupelo, who recorded and toured at the same time, slipped under my radar, but I’m glad their music eventually came to my attention. At some point in the future I will revisit the Son Volt and Wilco catalogs, but I thought I should start where they started, four albums (plus one compilation) blending acoustic & electric guitars, two distinct vocalists & songwriters and a punk rock energy that gave life to even their least memorable songs. This past week I’ve listened to their first two albums a number of times. A lot of their songs have a similar feel, so it took some time for the melodies & lyrical content to work their way into my brain.
Although Wilco ended up with the more critically and commercially successful career, at the time of Uncle Tupelo’s debut album, No Depression (1990), Jay Farrar was clearly the more accomplished singer & songwriter. He sang lead on nine of the thirteen songs, and even though all of their original compositions were credited to the three band members, you could tell who wrote each song by the singer. Every song here is enjoyable, but there are five that stand out from the others. “Graveyard Shift” is a great album opener, with an instantly memorable guitar pattern, crunchy power chords and a great sense of dynamics. The music is upbeat but the same can’t be said for the lyrics, which I suppose would apply to most of their work: “Some say a land of paradise, some say a land of pain; some people have it all, some all to gain.” The album got its title from a ‘30s song by The Carter Family of the same name, “No Depression.” It’s straight acoustic folk music that’s old-timey & modern in equal measure, with nice harmonies and strong guitar playing. This is a signature song for them. “Whiskey Bottle” is slow & mournful (“Persuaded, paraded, inebriated and down”), giving the album some breathing room after mostly upbeat arrangements, and features the addition of pedal steel guitar. It even gets into power ballad territory in the chorus (“A long way from happiness in a three-hour-away town”). “Life Worth Livin’” bears a similarity to Neil Young’s “The Needle And The Damage Done,” and has a particular intensity for such a stark arrangement (“This song is sung for anyone that’s listening…for the broken-spirited man”). The chorus actually has an optimistic feel even with the downtrodden lyrics. Of the five songs that stood out for me, only “Train” features lead vocals by Tweedy. It starts out midtempo with noisy guitars until picking up the pace about 40 seconds in. The lyrics indicate the fears of a young man possibly facing the draft (this was around the time of The Gulf War): “I’m 21 and I’m scared as hell…I’ll be the first one to die in a war.” I like how they fit in several distinct feels and tempos into such a brief song, yet it never feels rushed or crowded.
The remainder of the album may not be as strong as the songs I’ve already discussed, but it still has a lot of strong material. “That Year” is a Tweedy song that sounds like a cross between a hoedown and the country-influenced side of The Grateful Dead. There’s a great hook at “Give me back something that I never knew I had,” and the bridge shows hints of early REM (“Well, I sit and watch it go by”). Farrar’s “Before I Break” has two strong hooks. The first one begins the song (“On liquor I spent my last dime”), and the other has him quickly singing “Here’s to waking up at night half drunk in a ditch by the side of the road.” “Factory Belt” has lots of energy and a tight arrangement, but isn’t as catchy as some of the others. I do, however, like the guitar pattern at “Not to ride on the factory belt.” “So Called Friend” is loud and bouncy, and recalls REM circa ‘83/’84. The quiet middle section (“Forget what I said, your friend’s not dead”) is a nice change. “John Hardy” is a traditional American folk song that’s been covered by artists like Leadbelly, Bob Dylan and George Thorogood. Uncle Tupelo turns it into a bouncy rock song. On the 2003 CD reissue, several notable bonus tracks were included. “Left In The Dark” is a garage-rock song originally recorded by The Vertebrats. Farrar’s vocals are raspier than usual, sounding a bit like Iggy Pop. Their cover of the Gram Parsons/Chris Hillman song “Sin City,” originally by The Flying Burrito Brothers, is a straightforward acoustic performance with Dyan-esque harmonica and tight harmonies. “Blues Die Hard” is a raw demo that sounds like a cross between Creedence Clearwater Revival and REM. All in all, this is an excellent debut album that showcases two budding songwriters who weren’t following the musical trends of their time, and would soon influence a whole generation of similar-minded artists.
There was no sophomore slump for Uncle Tupelo, as Still Feels Gone (1991) picks up where the debut left off and takes the songwriting up a few notches. Most notably, Tweedy contributes nearly half of the material, which gives the album much more diversity. They also streamlined their arrangements, with no song clocking in above 3:40, giving everything more immediacy. Farrar’s “Gun” sounds more raw than anything on the first album, but also has more punch. It’s catchy “Middle America” rock that might have been influenced by BoDeans, and has some nice dynamic shifts. There’s a great hook at “My heart it was a gun, but it’s unloaded now so don’t bother.” Tweedy’s “Looking For A Way Out” is a jangly, midtempo song that reminds me of The Jayhawks, and I can’t help but wonder if that band was influenced by Uncle Tupelo since their breakthrough album wouldn’t be released until the following year. Ironically, The Jayhawks’ Gary Louris appears on other songs here, but not this one. Farrar’s “Still Be Around” has some impressive acoustic guitar playing and a similar vibe to much of the debut album (“When the bible is the bottle and the hardwood floor is home”). “Watch Me Fall” is a fast country shuffle with super tight instrumentation and excellent harmonies. In its concise 2:12 running time there’s some excellent guitar playing and possibly Tweedy’s strongest vocals to date.
The highlight of the album for me has to be Farrar’s “Postcard.” I love the staccato arrangement in the verses and the acoustic country choruses. It’s written from the perspective of a soldier at war: “Just as well to write this postcard from hell”; “I turn to face the wind, may never get out.” Louris contributes some nice lead guitar on this song.
The banjo added to “Discarded” is a nice touch. The song has a propulsive feel even in the sparser sections. My only complaint is that there are so many distinct parts and it never stays in one place for too long (in less than 3 minutes), so at times it seems a bit schizophrenic. “If That’s Alright” is mainly guitar & vocal, with subtle Optigan accompaniment (which sound like a haunting carousel organ). Tweedy’s lyrics are strong if a little self-pitying: “When I look back on my life, it’s like a slideshow out of focus.” There’s not a bad song among the remaining tracks, even if none of them are as catchy as the rest of the album. Still, it’s hard to complain about a record where more than half of the 13 tracks are as good as anything in that genre. Of the bonus tracks on the reissue, two are worth mentioning. “Sauget Wind” is a slow, haunting waltz that was released on a 7” single in ’92. It’s simple yet effective, and there’s a great hook at “It’s a long way to heaven, it’s a short way to hell.” The Robyn Hitchcock song, “I Wanna Destroy You” (originally recorded by his band The Soft Boys), is super catchy and has an infectious punk energy. The remaining tracks are demo versions that are interesting but not necessarily noteworthy. Even though I think Still Feel Gone is the stronger of Uncle Tupelo’s first two albums, it was a narrow margin, and they could be seen as two halves of the same coin. The uninitiated couldn’t go wrong starting with either of them.
I’ve already begun listening to their next (and final) two albums, which I’ll be spending more time with this week. There are some changes ahead, which led to their split, but not before they wrote and recorded some wonderful music. I will also be revisiting their career-spanning anthology from 2002. Even though there are only a couple of rarities on that collection, I look forward to finding out if the producers chose the same songs that I would include on an Uncle Tupelo compilation. Check in soon as I’ll be wrapping up their brief discography. Thanks.