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Formed in Illinois in 1994 from the ashes of Belleville’s favourite sons, UNCLE TUPELO, messrs Jeff Tweedy (vocals/guitar), John Stirratt (bass/vocals), Ken Coomer (drums) and Max Johnston (multi) – younger brother of MICHELLE SHOCKED – were in direct competition to UT’s/Jay Farrar’s splinter project, SON VOLT.
Unashamed roots-driven with a twist of FACES-esque R&B (example `Casino Queen’), WILCO were off the starting block with 1995’s A.M. {*7}, an enjoyable step forward in melodic country-rock. Tweedy’s freewheeling, boozy vision tweaked the right chords on the easy-going, LEMONHEADS-ish `I Must Be High’, `Pick Up The Change’ and `Box Full Of Letters’, while the sprawling `Shouldn’t Be Ashamed’ was pure YOUNG c/o CRAZY HORSE.
With the addition of another multi-instrumentalist, Jay Bennett, WILCO’s debut was nonetheless eclipsed by the 1996 follow-up, BEING THERE {*8}, a sprawling double set drawing comparisons with The ROLLING STONES’ “Exile On Main St.”, and hailed as one of the albums of the year. Reaching far beyond Tweedy’s patented musical boundaries to encompass everything from barroom belters to SPECTOR-esque rock/pop, the record proved conclusively that Farrar’s other half was blessed with his own distinct musical vision. A potpourri of psychedelic country, rock’n’roll and power-pop, the Top 75 breaker highlighted at least four jewels in `Outtasite (Outta Mind)’, `Outta Mind (Outta Sight)’, `I Got You (At The End Of The Century)’ and the fragile `Sunken Treasure’ – the listener was spoilt for choice.
While former writing partner Jay Farrar continued to come up with the goods for the aforementioned SON VOLT, the prospect of an UNCLE TUPELO reunion was (at the time) still tantalisingly within reach. However, WILCO returned in the summer of ’98 with an unlikely collaboration with English bard, BILLY BRAGG, on a memorable WOODY GUTHRIE tribute album, “Mermaid Avenue”, which kept the combination ticking over fine style.
The following March, the leaders of the alt-country/folk scene released their long-awaited third set, SUMMERTEETH (1999) {*9}, another Top 100 breaker, and their first UK Top 40 record. It boasted some breezy old tales, opening with minor UK hit, `Can’t Stand It’. Utilising the grandiose pop sensibilities and harmonies that once enticed disciples of BRIAN WILSON and RAY DAVIES, alt-country gave way to a warm and sugar-coated sound through `She’s A Jar’, `A Shot In The Arm’, `I’m Always In Love’ and `When You Wake Up Feeling Old’.
A second volume of GUTHRIE re-writes, “Mermaid Avenue Vol.II” (2000) – recorded without Egan – couldn’t come up with anything quite as affecting as say, `California Stars’, but it had its moments. WILCO’s penchant for uptempo roots-rock wasn’t always the best vehicle for presenting the legendary socialist’s humorous protest-folk; BRAGG too often stealing the limelight.
Tweedy moved even further from both his old sparring partner and his musical roots with YANKEE HOTEL FOXTROT (2002) {*8}, a Top 20 record the band believed in so much they spent a hefty sum buying it back from Reprise Records. While JIM O’ROURKE’s off-kilter production opened up angles seemingly irreconcilable with their limited roots-rock sound of yore, the results were never less than intriguing and often brilliantly conceived. Ultimately, it had already broke the band in half; Coomer and Bennett bailed out separately as recordings took place, while respective replacements were found in Glenn Kotche and LeRoy Bach. Filmed for their self-financed documentary, “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart”, the similarly-titled track opened proceedings, while Tweedy and Bennett’s bleak and brooding songs such as the poignant post-9/11, `Ashes Of American Flags’, were matched with The BEATLES-esque `Heavy Metal Drummer’, `I’m The Man Who Loves You’ and `Jesus, Etc.’.
A GHOST IS BORN (2004) {*8} was another thoughtful, multi-faceted meta-pop record, further proof – if needed – of Tweedy’s determination to unshackle his inner changeling and, with a US Top10/UK Top 50 showing, proof that WILCO’s new muse was better appreciated on home soil. With O’Rourke still sculpting the production, the balance between hook, white noise and tangent was ever-wavering, occasionally vexing, but almost always worthy of perseverance. Tweedy at times sounded like a refugee from a lost LENNON session, tarrying in the studio and tinkering with the afterthoughts; yet for every idea that didn’t quite come off, there was always several that surprised by degrees: `The Late Greats’ ranks as one of the wryest vignettes he’s yet penned, `Theolgians’ one of his most immediate. The subsequent tour saw the amicable replacement of Bach with Mikael Jorgensen (keyboards) and Nels Cline (guitar), with the latter especially, mainlining much of the invention for concert double-set, KICKING TELEVISION: LIVE IN CHICAGO (2005) {*8}; multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone had now been added to the fold.
WILCO’s first studio set in three years, SKY BLUE SKY (2007) {*7} gave the ever-evolving group a Top 5 entry. Under the influence of Laurel Canyon escapes and NEIL YOUNG-meets-JOHN LENNON-type soft-rock, the focus was on pastoral beauty or wistful sentiments rather than rootsy rock. Overall, their loyalty could be pleased with `Impossible Germany’, `Side With The Seeds’ (penned with pianist Mikael Jorgensen), `Walken’ and `Please Be Patient With Me’.
Released only a month after the sad passing of former WILCO star, Jay Bennett (who died May 24, 2009), WILCO (THE ALBUM) {*7}, climbed into the Top 5. Tweedy switched BEATLES allegiances (however subtle) to GEORGE HARRISON; `You Never Know’, `You And I’, `Deeper Down’, and `Wilco (The Song)’ just a handful of examples that relayed this alt-country check-out for Nonesuch Records; dBpm-Anti duly signed them.
Taking a slightly different direction, but in keeping with WILCO’s rich tapestry of retro styles, the Top 5 (UK Top 30), THE WHOLE LOVE (2011) {*8}, channelled each individual (Sansone, Cline, Stirratt, Jorgensen and Kotche) on their main strengths – not just as Tweedy’s foil. From the bubbly opener, `Art Of Almost’, and the RAY MANZAREK-like `I Might’, to the strutting `Standing O’ and the bookend epic, `One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)’ (all 12 COHEN-meets-prog minutes of it!), this record was most definitely “the whole shebang”.
If there was ever an album to strip away any contentions of country-rock then 2015’s avant-garde STAR WARS {*7} was such a record. Not for any Stetson gunslinger, but more or less for fans of The FOLK IMPLOSION or SONIC YOUTH, the bold set was first released as a free download for a month in mid July, thus its lowly non-chart returns when officially spun out on CD a month later. Tweedy and Co delivered playful excursions verging on glam and fuzzy psych on several cuts (think LOU REED for `You Satellite’, or T. REX for both `King Of You’ and `Random Name Generator’). While most alt-country musos would baulk at the manic minute opener of `EKG’, the remainder in part (`More…’, `The Joke Explained’ and the introspective strummer `Taste The Ceiling’, the spine), WILCO clambered out of the wreckage bloodied but unbowed.
Almost colliding with Cline’s own-jazz-album-to-do, `Lovers’, the acoustically-astute sextet WILCO were back among the big guns – and high chart numbers – with 10th album SCHMILCO (2016) {*8}. A million miles from any “Nilsson Schmilsson” or sub-angular “Star Wars”, there was a lemony LENNON texture on a handful of tracks, including star-track `If I Ever Was A Child’, `Nope’ and `Shrug And Destroy’. It was endearing to think that WILCO might presume there was room on their CV for a road-movie hit, but `Cry All Day’ was the ticket for some dashboard finger-tapping. Dropping out for an off-kilter switch of tact, the eerie “Out-diana” `Common Sense’ was time for them to exercise their rights to transmorph into the MAGIC BAND. One imagines that `Someone To Lose’, if plugged into the mains, might’ve sounded grungy and out-of-sync with these humdrum days, but let’s bow to the gorgeous `Just Say Goodbye’, the insular teen-angst `Normal American Kids’ and the straight-forward strummer `Quarters’.
In laying off touring until the necessary promotional gigs (that included their bi-annual Solid Sound Festival), TWEEDY had more time to commit to a solo set, “Warm” (and sequel “Warmer”). The main songwriter was then content to allocate space for WILCO’s next venture, the transatlantic Top 30 ODE TO JOY (2019) {*7}. Nothing whatsoever to do with Friedrich Schiller’s centuries-old poem against war and desperation, the bedsit-rock sextet didn’t quite dismiss its motif in terms of today’s dread and depression. `Bright Leaves’ and the tentative `One And A Half Stars’ were almost rustic and sloth-like in comparison to download singles, `Love Is Everywhere (Beware)’ and `Everyone Hides’, though these tracks in themselves were hardly brisk walks in the park.
© MC Strong 1996-2006/BG-GRD // rev-up MCS Apr2013-Oct2019

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