Breaking Away | Music Review | Chicago Reader

Breaking Away 

Jeff Tweedy
at Lounge Ax, June 14 & 15

"There is no sunken trea-sure / Rumored to be / Wrapped inside my ribs," sang Jeff Tweedy on Wilco's 1996 double LP, Being There, and thus served notice on alt-country cultists that he wished to vacate the pedestal they'd placed him on. But the cultists just plugged their ears and hummed louder, and even now--three years later and five years after the breakup of Uncle Tupelo--Tweedy's still fighting to get the point across. "What you once were isn't what you want to be anymore," goes the singsong catchphrase from "A Shot in the Arm," on Wilco's recently released Summerteeth.

Wilco's 1995 debut, A.M., was Tweedy's baptism as front man--he'd served his time in Uncle Tupelo first as reluctant understudy to cofounder Jay Farrar and later chafing at the rigidity of Farrar's muse. But when Farrar split in mid-1994, rather than taking off as fast as he could in the other direction, Tweedy circled the wagons, retaining Uncle Tupelo drummer Ken Coomer, bassist John Stirratt, and multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston and enlisting his old pal Brian Henneman of the Bottle Rockets to play lead guitar. The quintet made a pleasantly melodic roots-pop record, heartfelt but modest in its goals--not quite Uncle Tupelo, but not exactly a radical digression.

Then Tweedy took a crucial step in Wilco's evolution: he hired Jay Bennett as the band's permanent guitarist. Bennett's prior work in the Champaign-based Titanic Love Affair didn't presage the impact he would have on Wilco, but over time he has become Jiminy Cricket to Tweedy's Pinocchio: as a constant advocate of the limitless possibilities of the studio and as an adventurous arranger, he seems to have given Tweedy the confidence to explore his own talent in the broader realm of rock 'n' roll. In Bennett's absence, as in the roots-rock stuporgroup Golden Smog, Tweedy has been prone to the predictable ("Lost Love," from the Smog's 1998 disc Weird Tales) and the pedestrian ("Please Tell My Brother").

From the start Wilco and Tweedy tried to distance themselves from the burgeoning alt-country scene. "In the back of my mind, I was still wanting Uncle Tupelo fans to like me [circa A.M.]," he told No Depression on the eve of Being There's release. "[But] that's not really me." And before Being There came out, Tweedy met with employees of the band's label, Reprise, to request that they not use Uncle Tupelo or Farrar's band, Son Volt, to market the record. By the time the band hit the road, he was openly hostile about it: one oft-repeated anecdote on Postcard, an E-mail discussion list devoted to Uncle Tupelo and its ilk, takes place at an east-coast club during the Being There tour. Wilco is onstage. Fan shouts: "Where's the banjo?" Tweedy barks: "The banjo's up your ass!"

But Being There was ultimately an ineffective vehicle for Tweedy's protestations because it was an ineffective album. The rock press dubbed it "ambitious" in a collective knee-jerk reaction to its 70-minute-plus length, but in fact it suffered from a lack of ambition. Tweedy and his mates knew what they didn't want to be, but they hadn't figured out what they wanted to be instead, and the result was unfocused overindulgence at the buffet table of late-60s and early-70s rock--the Byrds, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Buffalo Springfield.

Summerteeth is another story. In hindsight, two songs on Being There--the opening tracks of each of the two discs, in fact--foreshadowed the direction it would take. With their dense, almost chaotic arrangements, neither "Misunderstood" nor "Sunken Treasure" would sound out of place on Summerteeth, though they're closer in mood to the spiraling desperation of the Velvet Underground or Big Star's Sister Lovers than to the new album's markedly more upbeat explosions of psychedelic bliss. On Summerteeth, only in the gut-wrenching refrain of "A Shot in the Arm" ("Maybe all I need is a shot in the arm / Something in my veins bloodier than blood") does Tweedy sound as hell-bent on self-destruction.

That's not to say the rest of Summerteeth is all sweetness and light.

The beguiling lilt of "Via Chicago" is a Trojan horse that conceals disturbing meditations on death (homicide or suicide, depending on your perspective); "She's a Jar" features the now notorious line "She begged me not to hit her." But the album ends officially (there are two hidden tracks) on a hopeful note, with the reflective "In a Future Age" ("Some trees will bend and some will fall / But then again so will we all / Let's turn our prayers to outrageous dares / And mark our page in a future age"). The Bennett-penned lullaby "My Darling" is simple and sincere, "Nothing'severgonnastandin-myway(again)" and the bonus track "Candyfloss" are downright jubilant, and even "I'm Always in Love"--despite the creepy lyric "When I let go of your throat sweet throttle"--bursts with swooning synths and an insistent pulse that, when the windows are rolled down on a summer afternoon, seems to make the car go a little faster.

Summerteeth is unquestionably a pop album. It features about as many keyboards as it does guitars; the banjo's in there, but so are the tambourine, the toy harp, the sleigh bells, and the timpani. It's unified even in its diversity: three-chord ballads like "Via Chicago" make nice with the likes of the title track, which hops from one key to another midsong, and pop-rock radio nuggets like "ELT" cohabit comfortably with the meticulously scored "Pieholden Suite." Tweedy's lyrics are arrestingly imagistic ("I wrote my name on the back of a leaf and watched it float away / The hope I had in a notebook full of white dry pages was all I had to say") and rendered in indelible turns of phrase ("How to fight loneliness? Smile all the time / Shine your teeth 'til meaningless / And sharpen them with lies").

Since November Tweedy has performed these songs six times at Lounge Ax--most recently in two shows last week--in classic troubadour mode, with just guitar and harmonica. Stripped to their skeletons, they reveal a simple but refined grace, evidence of Tweedy's coming of age as a performer. Though his between-song banter is consistently self-deprecating, his manner--seeking a fan's gaze, cocking an eyebrow during a guitar solo, loosing a howl that scrapes the edges of his vocal range--exudes a confidence that wipes away any lingering images of that gawky kid hiding behind a wall of hair in Uncle Tupelo, thumping crudely at his bass and braying mismatched harmonies to Jay Farrar's depth-charge baritone.

Because they take place not just in the city where he lives but in the club his wife, Sue Miller, owns, Tweedy's solo appearances have the intimacy of a kaffeeklatsch; because they are scarcely promoted, they customarily draw only hard-core devotees. Tweedy tends to work out new material (last week saw the debut of the unrecorded originals "Chinese Apple" and "I'm the Man Who Really Loves You") and toss off unexpected covers (Herman's Hermits and Blondie one night; a couple of traditional folk ballads the next). He'll even indulge the occasional request for Uncle Tupelo chestnuts ("Gun," "Black Eye").

But the Lounge Ax stage has also become a pulpit from which Tweedy can speak directly to those fans whose expectations weigh so heavily on him: thanks to the wonder of the Internet, comments he makes to a crowd of about 300 are quickly circulated to thousands. "I'm going to a cybercafe after the show to see what they think of me," he told the room in November. During both shows last week, he took time to respond to a National Organization for Women boycott of Summerteeth that was supposedly prompted by "She's a Jar." The boycott, it turns out, was only the satirical creation of a fan who posted a faux news bulletin to the Postcard list. But the ire in Tweedy's voice suggested that he thought it was real, and Maureen Herman, writing for CDNow's Allstar News, dutifully noted his response in her report on the show.

Maybe this bungle will encourage Tweedy to let his music speak for itself in the future. Not surprisingly, that's when he's at his most eloquent, as Wilco's sold-out gig May 7 at the Riviera proved. Displaying the chops he's honed at Lounge Ax, he picked nimble folk riffs in "Hesitating Beauty" (from Wilco and Billy Bragg's Woody Guthrie project, Mermaid Avenue) and even stepped out for a pair of guitar solos. And only when appropriate, as on A.M.'s "I Must Be High" and "She's a Jar," did he deploy the laconic, behind-the-beat drawl that was once his only vocal trick. He plunged with fervor into Being There's "Monday" and "I Got You (At the End of the Century)," both Stonesy rave-ups of a caliber Jagger and Richards haven't sniffed in two decades, and screamed himself hoarse on "Hoodoo Voodoo" (also from Mermaid Avenue). When he cooed Bennett's "My Darling," it sounded for all the world like a late-night reassurance to Tweedy's three-year-old son, Spencer, who was in attendance that evening: "We made you, my darling, with the love in each of our hearts / We were a family, my darling, right from the start." Though the band did more than justice to the album's dense orchestrations, with shining guitar and keyboard work by Bennett and local multi-instrumentalist Leroy Bach, Wilco could play a thousand shows that good and still not please all the disgruntled fans of Tweedy's early work. But some of those fans have found an enterprising solution to the problem: tapes of his solo shows, widely available via Postcard, have become a kind of alternate version of Summerteeth. Wilco seem to approve; in fact, they've released a couple of the performances as B sides on a UK-only single. Maybe at Lounge Ax Tweedy and his fans have finally come to terms with who he wants to be.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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