Monday, January 5, 2009

Uncle Tupelo. Still Feel Gone (Rockville, 1991)

"Don't call it nothin'/ It might be all we ever have."

Uncle Tupelo were the alt-country Beatles. Not only did their 1990 debut No Depression (which in turn stole its title from the Carter Family standard "No Depression in Heaven") lend a name to one of the decade's most distinct musical movements and the magazine that chronicled it, but, like Liverpool's favorite sons, Uncle Tupelo were able to take fairly sophisticated sonic structures and ideas and make them infinitely listenable, never getting bogged down in showmanship or theory. Each of their four EPs is an exercise in honest musicianship done intelligently, never dumbed-down but never putting on airs.

Also like the Beatles, Uncle Tupelo had two gifted songwriters who approached the material in two distinct ways. Jeff Tweedy was the McCartney-esque bass player, with brighter melodies and a tendency to delve into matters personal and romantic. Guitarist Jay Farrar played the role of a dour Lennon, bashing out blistering riffs and walls of distortion behind social observations on Rust Belt malaise and the desperation born of too few options.

The combination of the two sounds works perfectly, especially since Tweedy and Farrar managed to successfully bridge the gap between vintage country and punk, recognizing the anger and attitude common to both and avoiding the gimmicky schtick that plagued previous "cowpunk" outfits like Rank and File, Lone Justice, and the Blasters. Uncle Tupelo -- which found its inception in the blue collar St. Louis suburb of Belleville, Illinois in the late '80s -- sounded pissed off and serious, sincere in their admiration of bluegrass and Depression-era folk and determined to weld it to the hardcore they grew up worshipping (see "D. Boon," a touching paean to the Minutemen's departed guitarist). And they pulled it off better than anyone before or since.

Still Feel Gone is Uncle Tupelo's sophomore triumph, a raging collection of burners marked by Farrar's livid guitar work, Tweedy's propulsive bass, and Mike Heidorn's punk-cum-cowboy drumming. The previous LP, No Depression, is excellent, but Still Feel Gone finds the trio taking full control of their powers and realizing the potential only hinted at on the debut. Plus, Still Feel Gone's production is a significant step beyond No Depression's: recorded and mixed at the legendary New England studio Fort Apache (which has played host to the Pixies, Dinosaur Jr., and other such indie luminaries in its time), the LP has a rich, layered sound which serves the fury (and relentless tunefullness) of the songs well.

A Tweedy composition starts the record off, and it's a doozy: Gun comes out blazing, pounding drums and thick, staccato riffs girding Tweedy's seething lyrics: "Just don't tell me which way I oughta run/ Or what good I could do anyone/ 'Cause my heart it was a gun." You can here the frustration and disappointment as Tweedy spits, "But it's unloaded now/ So don't bother."

Farrar's loping, twisted Looking for a Way Out is up next, and in true Farrar form tackles the despair too often hidden in small-town existence. Over an insistent hook, Farrar asks, "What has a life of fifty years/ In this town done for you/ Except to earn your name and place on a barstool?" At 2:11, Farrar sucks in his gut to unleash a searing solo, the rage and boredom and defiance screaming from the speakers.

"Nothing" is an up-tempo thrasher, Tweedy using his (then) unsteady tenor to nice effect to deliver heartsick lyrics: "I found the roads less traveled/ To take you off my mind/ And I told myself I know everything I do/ I'm just looking for something/ To lead me away from you." "Still Be Around"'s acoustic thrust recall's quieter moments from Husker Du or Sugar, Farrar's Eyeore baritone a solid approximation of Bob Mould's.

Still Feel Gone sees Jeff Tweedy -- then only starting to come into his own as a songwriter and singer -- turn in the album's two most devastatingly pretty tracks. Cold Shoulder starts off quiet, with quick, shuffling drums and keening guitars boosting the vocal melody before transitioning into a lumbering bruiser, Tweedy bitterly demanding, "How could I have ever needed such a cold heart to count on?/ How could I have ever wanted such a cold shoulder to cry on?" Album closer If That's Alright is one of the best songs Tweedy has ever written: over a quiet guitar and an obsolete electronic keyboard called an optigan, Tweedy weaves a breathtaking melody and gutting lyrics: "When will it all become concrete/ Wouldn't that be sweet?/ To know where you stand?" finally concluding, "But until then, it's a slideshow/ That you're yawning through/ Or even sleeping," a gorgeous exercise in sadness.

Though the band would achieve a more sophisticated, mature sound on final LP Anodyne, Still Feel Gone is by far my favorite Uncle Tupelo album. It's punk bluster and country gloom brilliantly married in a shotgun wedding, delivered without a trace of smirking irony or dishonesty. It's also the sound of two new bands being born: Tweedy's Wilco and Farrar's Son Volt, each of which would take the various sounds of Uncle Tupelo and build on them in the years to come, with varying success. At any rate, alt-country simply doesn't get any better than Still Feel Gone, a bracing, ill-tempered batch of songs by kids from the sticks who were awesome because they didn't know any better.