KamerTunesBlog

Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time

UNCLE TUPELO Part 2 – No Sign Of Reconciliation / In Conclusion

After two albums of amplified country-rock infused with punk energy, Uncle Tupelo’s third release, March 16-20, 1992 (1992), was a complete change of pace that cemented their reputation as alt-country standard bearers. This time, REM’s Peter Buck offered to produce the album, and he even let the band stay at his house in Athens, GA for free so their entire budget (from indie label Rockville Records) could be spent on Uncle Tupelo - March 16-20, 1992recording. Drummer Mike Heidorn had decided to leave the band for personal reasons but stuck around for the recording of this album. Since most of the songs feature acoustic arrangements, though, Heidorn’s presence is only noticeable on a handful of tracks. This was really the Jay Farrar-Jeff Tweedy show, and they came up with a great collection of folk- and country-influenced songs along with six covers and “Trad Arr” songs (which refers to traditional, public domain songs that are arranged by the performer). The two tracks that open the album, both by Farrar, set a great tone for what’s to come. “Grindstone” has a nice chugging acoustic guitar and subtle brushwork on the snare drum by Heidorn. It sounds like a classic folk song, although the tempo changes bring it into the modern age. “Coalminers” is a stark and haunting traditional ballad; a rousing call to arms about the difficult life of the titular laborers (“Let’s sink this capitalist system to the darkest pits of hell”) that’s carried along by just guitar and Farrar’s inimitable voice.

Farrar’s songs dominate here like they did on the first two albums, but Tweedy still offers some very good ones. The best of them is “Black Eye,” a Paul Simon-esque tune with excellent guitar work by frequent Uncle Tupelo collaborator Brian Henneman. “Wait Up” is another good one, with a circular guitar pattern that recalls British folk artists like Nick Drake & Bert Jansch. At just over 2 minutes it’s a little slight, with only two quick verses, but Henneman adds some nice banjo that had me smiling. “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down” is a brief but powerful Depression-era gospel song with strong vocals from Tweedy. One of the standout tracks is “Moonshiner,” a co-write between Tweedy and Farrar that features the latter on vocals. It’s slow as molasses, with Neil Young-inspired harmonica, written from the perspective of an alcohol supplier/drinker (“I go to some hollow and set up my still, If the whiskey don’t kill me, Lord I don’t know what will”). A good song became great with the last line: “The whole world is a bottle and life is but a dram, When the bottle gets empty, Lord it sure ain’t worth a damn.” Dark & dreary, yes…but powerful too.

[Uncle Tupelo – “Moonshiner”]

Farrar wrote “Shaky Ground,” a simple acoustic song “in memory of a miner.” The arrangement is simple & effective, with sad lyrics (“An expired product off the shelf, Uncle Tupelo Photo (Farrar & Tweedy circa 1992)working for someone else”). Their cover of The Louvin Brothers’ “Atomic Power” is a bouncy folk/country tune with pleasant harmonies that offset some very dark lyrics about seeking God’s strength in the face of atomic war. “Lilli Schull” is the longest song on the album, at over 5 minutes, and it’s also the slowest-paced…but that works in its favor. It’s a traditional murder ballad with a back-porch arrangement that conveys all the emotions of a death row inmate as he awaits execution for the murder of the girl in the title. The playful instrumental “Sandusky,” which was co-written by Farrar & Tweedy, has some great guitar interplay and reminds me of REM’s folkier material. “Wipe The Clock” is very simple, with strummed acoustic guitar and harmonica, and I especially love Farrar’s aching voice at “never heard a story of anyone” and “what’s it matter right now?” The songs I haven’t mentioned continue in the same acoustic vein as the rest of the album, but aren’t worth special mention. Of the bonus tracks included on the 2003 reissue, their acoustic take on The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” is a whole lot of fun, as is the brief hidden track: “The Waltons” TV theme song. This album must have been a bit of a shock for fans when it was released, but other than the instrumentation, not much had changed. They were still writing (and now interpreting) great songs and delivering them with passion and authority. I imagine people who enjoy Bruce Springsteen’s more offbeat records like The Ghost Of Tom Joad and We Shall Overcome – The Seeger Sessions would love this album. There were times when I played it this week where I considered it my favorite Uncle Tupelo album, but I think that will change depending on my mood.

For their fourth and final album, Anodyne (1993), they signed with a major label (Sire/Reprise) and added some additional musicians to fill out the sound. Ken Coomer, who Uncle Tupelo - Anodynewould go on to join Tweedy in Wilco, took over for Heidorn on the drums. New bassist John Stirratt, multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston and pedal steel guitarist Lloyd Maines (father of Dixie Chick Natalie Maines) would also be part of Wilco, along with long-time collaborator Brian Henneman. Most of the songs here are credited to Farrar and Tweedy, an ironic sign of solidarity in the face of their impending split. The album was recorded live in the studio with no overdubs, which gives the songs an energy & vitality that might have been missing had they gone with a slick production that was standard practice for major label bands at that time. The majority of my favorite songs on this album were written and sung by Tweedy. “Acuff Rose” is a wonderfully peppy song that’s elevated by Farrar’s mandolin. This upbeat bluegrass-y love song is actually an ode to the Nashville publishing company that rose to prominence thanks to the songs of one of my early musical heroes, Hank Williams (“Name me a song that everybody knows, and I’ll bet you it belongs to Acuff-Rose”). “The Long Cut” (as in, the opposite of “short cut”) is another REM-sounding song, with Tweedy’s raw and passionate vocals a notable highlight. Although it’s straight-ahead rock, the lyrics deal with a strained relationship, possibly a reference to Farrar (“We’ve been in a deep rut and it’s been killing me”).

Tweedy’s strongest song is “New Madrid,” all bouncy and plucky, with banjo bringing a smile to my face. There’s also a super-catchy chorus: “Come on, do what you did, Roll me under New Madrid; Shake my baby and please bring her back.” Farrar’s best contribution is the heartbreaking “Anodyne,” an ironic title since “anodyne” can refer to a pain reliever while his lyrics offer nothing but pain: “No sign of reconciliation, it’s a quarter past the end; Full moon on high, across the board we lose again.” Could this possibly be a reference to Tweedy? These two songs form a perfect point-counterpoint in the middle of the album, where the former closed out Side 1 and the latter opened Side 2 on the original LP.

[Uncle Tupelo – “Anodyne”]

Tweedy’s “We’ve Been Had” is a fun, propulsive country rocker with a killer guitar hook. I love the loose harmonies in the chorus, and the overall rawness reminded me of Springsteen’s “Crush On You.” He also wrote and sang “No Sense In Lovin’,” a lilting Uncle Tupelo Photo (circa 1993)country-pop song with a steady beat and more great pedal steel from Maines. The upbeat music betrays lyrics like “I’ve tried to understand your abuse, but you’ve got no excuse, and there’s no use in lovin’ anyone who hates themself.” Two more strong Farrar songs are “Fifteen Keys” and “High Water.” In the former, I like the syncopated rhythm, which gives the song more personality than a straight 4/4 groove. Johnston’s dobro adds a cool element to the sound. The latter is slow and mournful, with more lyrics about a broken down relationship (“We quote each other only when we’re wrong, We tear out the threads and move along”). Once again I have to wonder if he was predicting the end of the band with a chorus of “I can see the sand and it’s running out.” The bonus tracks on the 2003 reissue are all very good, but there’s nothing essential among the five of them. It’s certainly nice to hear their take on Waylon Jennings’ “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” with Joe Ely on vocals, as well as a raucous cover of ‘50s country song “Truck Drivin’ Man” originally by Terry Fell. I have to imagine that this album was the introduction for most people into the world of Uncle Tupelo, since it was released on a major label and probably received more promotion than any of their prior releases. I hope most of those people went back and explored their catalog, since each album holds its own unique charm. As I stated above, any of them could be my favorite at any particular time, Anodyne included (especially for those two key songs in the center of the album).

A year before each of the albums was reissued on expanded CDs, Sony Music (which by then had the rights to the three Rockville albums) released an excellent career retrospective, 89/93: An Anthology (2002). At the time I owned the original CD pressings of No Depression, Still Feel Gone and March 16-20, 1992, but had never gotten Uncle Tupelo - 89-93 An AnthologyAnodyne, so this collection was a nice way for me to fill in the gaps in my Uncle Tupelo collection. Not only did I get three Anodyne songs plus a live version of a fourth, but there were also six additional tracks that were previously unavailable or rare. The best of these, “Sauget Wind,” would appear as a bonus track on the Still Feel Gone reissue, and it’s the best of the non-LP tracks here. “Outdone (1989 Demo)” combines their usual REM influence, but also reminds me a bit of “Marching On” by Welsh band The Alarm (one of my favorite ‘80s artists). There’s a different version of “I Wanna Be Your Dog” recorded during the March 16-20, 1992 sessions, which is good but doesn’t have the unplugged charm of the version I previously mentioned. Their nearly-6-minute version of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Effigy” doesn’t outstrip the original, but Farrar really shreds on the guitar, showing his admiration for Neil Young and The Jayhawks’ Gary Louris. Although there are probably 4-5 other songs I would’ve included on this compilation, I have to give the producers credit for an excellent track listing that covers a majority of the best songs from each album, with a smattering of very good rarities. For anyone who’s read these two posts and wants to hear more of their music, but doesn’t feel the need to own everything they released, you’ll definitely get your money’s worth with this CD. I would just urge you to at least seek out the songs “Postcard” and “Anodyne” as well, since they’re my two favorites that didn’t make the cut here.

That was a fun little catalog to revisit. Now that I’ve delved into their music and backstory, I will be fully prepared when I eventually shift my focus to the Son Volt and Wilco catalogs. I’m not sure when I’ll get to them, since I have an immense list of artists whose catalogs I want to spend time with, but whenever I do I know I’ll be enjoying the work of two very gifted songwriters. And although I can’t pick a favorite, I’ve really grown to love Farrar’s voice the past two weeks. I always liked it, but until now I never realized how distinct it is. I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief series. If you’re already a fan, let me know which of their songs/albums you love. If, however, you’re new to their music via this blog, I would love to know what made the biggest impression on you. Thanks, and I look forward to hearing from you.

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15 comments on “UNCLE TUPELO Part 2 – No Sign Of Reconciliation / In Conclusion

  1. mikeladano
    December 8, 2012

    I remain intrigued.

    Like

    • Have you enjoyed any of the song clips I’ve posted? I think you’ll get a pretty good sense of their style and the two distinct vocalists by listening to them.

      Like

      • mikeladano
        December 9, 2012

        I did Rich, and it just so happens that I like bands with more than one vocalist! There’s a great Canadian band called Blue Rodeo that I am into. Actually Bob Egan, who I think spent some time in Wilco, is their slide player.

        Like

      • I own two Blue Rodeo albums: Lost Together and Casino (from my days at Atlantic Records). I’ve enjoyed them the few times I’ve played them over the years, but I’ve never explored their catalog any further. I doubt they’re a band I would write about here, since I don’t have enough of their music, but I will take the CDs off the shelf and give them a listen soon…when I can find the time…and hopefully that will get me more interested in delving further into their catalog. Thanks for inspiring me to give them another listen.

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      • mikeladano
        December 9, 2012

        I have all their stuff, but they just issued an 8 disc box set of the first 5 albums plus rarities that I am dying to review. I doubt I will get to it this year, but in 2013 I’d like to get that one done. So you can watch out for that!

        How the heck can you remember all these titles that you own but haven’t played often??

        Like

      • I saw the listing for that box set a few weeks ago, but it’s just too pricey for me. As a fan of box sets, that would be my choice for the next Blue Rodeo purchase if the price ever comes down significantly. Since that may never happen, what’s the next best album for me to check out?

        As for remembering what’s in my collection, it’s just how my brain works. Sometimes I have to look them up, but more often than not the album titles are stuck in my brain. Of course, having an Excel spreadsheet with my entire collection makes it easy to look up anything I can’t remember. I haven’t updated it in almost two years, so it’s time for me to do that.

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      • mikeladano
        December 9, 2012

        You and I are so alike. I have my collection in Word, but I too haven’t updated in almost 2 years!

        You already have one of the best albums (Lost Together) but Five Days In July is probably the best. I can’t wait to get into the reviewing.

        Like

      • You seem to enjoy the reviewing as much as the listening. The whole writing process gets a bit tedious for me, but getting to have conversations with fellow music lovers makes it worth the effort. Thanks for the Blue Rodeo recommendation.

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  2. Lewis Johnston
    December 9, 2012

    This has been a most enjoyable musical diversion. I had heard of this before, although my knowledge was very limited. Thanks to this I now know a lot more and I will be checking this out with great interest. They do have some things in common with some of the artists I have listened to for a long time, Neil Young, Mike Nesmith and a few others. However, they bring their own sonic landscape to the table as well. It seems to me that they are very underrated, often the case with a lot of artists unfortunately. I certainly will be adding them to my collection as I think the music is very worthwhile and deserves to be heard.

    Like

    • Lewis, I’m so glad you enjoyed this brief series on Uncle Tupelo. They definitely continued the lineage of the other artists you mentioned, bringing their own sensibility & influences into the mix. If you enjoyed the songs with Jay Farrar singing, I would suggest checking out his band Son Volt, which began immediately after Uncle Tupelo broke up. If I remember correctly, their sound eventually stopped developing, but their first few albums had a number of excellent songs and, of course, Farrar’s distinctive vocals. Of course, whenever I revisit their catalog in the future, I may find that I enjoy their later material (as well as his solo recordings) just as much, but right now that’s the best recommendation I can give. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts here.

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  3. Pingback: KamerTunesBlog Year In Review 2012 | KamerTunesBlog

  4. Brian
    January 29, 2013

    Hey Rich- very late to the party on this but I waffle between “March 16-20” and “Anodyne” as my faves but I really enjoy all four albums quite a bit. One of my fave tracks that I don’t think was mentioned above is “Chickamauga” off of “Anodyne”. I love “Black Eye” and “Moonshiner” as well. Tweedy often gets called out by critics as green when he was with Tupelo and Farrar manages to get most of the props from them. “Chickamauga” excluded, I tend to enjoy the Tweedy songs the most- not taking anything away from Farrar who was certainly a great talent as well.

    Like

    • Hi Brian. It’s never too late to talk about any music, especially music as timeless as this. I really can’t pick a favorite Uncle Tupelo album…they all have so many great songs and any of them could be considered their best. I’m curious: were you already a Tweedy fan when you got into Uncle Tupelo? It seems to me that Tweedy’s songwriting & singing were still developing, especially on the first two albums, while Farrar’s talents were fully formed right from the start. Although I liked the first Wilco & Son Volt albums a little before checking out UT, I didn’t have any particular feeling about Tweedy or Farrar when I first listened to them. For me, Tweedy’s talents really blossomed over the years, while Farrar mostly stuck with what he’s good at, but at least by the end of Uncle Tupelo they were on equal footing.

      As for “Chickamauga,” I had to refer to my notes because I couldn’t remember why I didn’t mention it here. Although it’s a pretty good REM-ish rocker with great lead guitar, I felt like it was unspectacular and they had already done this kind of song much better. Guess we can’t always be on the same page. Thanks for checking in.

      Rich

      Like

  5. stephen1001
    March 28, 2013

    Wilco’s got two of my favourites from the 90s (Being There & Mermaid Avenue w. Billy Bragg) – after reading your reviews, I’m intrigued to explore where Mr. Tweedy began! And I’ll second the Blue Rodeo reccomendation from earlier in the comment thread – Jim Cuddy’s solo stuff is also worth a listen!

    Like

    • Those are two fantastic Wilco albums for sure. As a Bragg fan since ’88 those Mermaid Avenue albums were immediate favorites, and they’re a great combination of talented artists. I can see some Wilco fans not liking Uncle Tupelo, especially the earlier records, since in my opinion Jay Farrar was the stronger songwriter & singer of the two until their last album together.

      I did revisit the two Blue Rodeo albums I own and really enjoyed them. When I find some others at a decent price I’ll pick them up, and will consider checking out Cuddy’s solo stuff as well. Thanks for the recommendation.

      Like

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