The basic principle was that when you fused the traditions and sounds of country with alternative-rock, punk and folk, you created something that couldn’t really sit neatly with what country had become. Stop for a second and think of what springs to mind when you picture country music. Stetsons, cowboy boots, yee-haing Texans? Sheryl Crow? Taylor Swift? Garth Brooks?
Somewhere along the way what made country great had unquestionably got lost! This corporate, pop-fuelled take on country was so far removed from Jonny Cash, Gram Parsons or Carl Perkins, that country had become an almost derogatory term. Country was so entwined with naff dancing and cheesy love-songs, that Chet Akins memorably declared “the music’s got pretty damn bad, I think, it’s all the line dancing”
Back in 1990 to refer to Uncle Tupelo’s seminal debut album, No Depression, as simply a country album would have been an insult, at heart however it was a country record. The influence of The Flying Burrito Brothers and The Byrds was all over it, as was the influence of punk. It was that combination that revived country as something that can be credible. It turned a new generation on to the thrills of what had come before, arguably it paved the way for crossovers from the likes of Ryan Adams, Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Smog. They were also the bands that contained Jay Farrar, who went on to form Son Volt, and Jeff Tweedy, whose band Wilco might just be the genre’s biggest stars.
By pioneering a sound that became alt-country, Uncle Tupelo have left a legacy that far outstrips the amount of records they’ve sold.
TWEEDY – SUKIERAE
This album came initially from Jeff Tweedy sitting down to write a solo album, the man behind Wilco and Uncle Tupelo finally going alone, not a solo album in a lone-man with an acoustic guitar sense, but that all together more adventurous project, one ludicrously talented man playing anything and everything exactly how he wants it to sound. That’s nearly what he ended up with, though as he brilliantly put it “I let some DNA play the drums” that DNA comes in the form of his ludicrously talented son Spencer. Spencer Tweedy is just 18 years old, Jeff describes him as “effortlessly competent” with a seeming mixture of pride and a little jealousy!
Listening to the record they’ve written together, it becomes clear just how appropriate that this record is a family record. Whilst writing the record Jeff’s older brother died, and his wife Sue, for whom the record is titled, was diagnosed with cancer, a battle that continues, though the prognosis is favourable. These twin events unsurprisingly shape the album, though this is not a self-pitying or constantly sad album, it’s less an album about death and illness as it is about the joy of life, and as clichéd as it may sound, an album about appreciating the ones you love and the time you have with them. It’s a beautiful album and according to Jeff, just what the family needed, it’s also long!
Twenty tracks and 72 minutes long, in a lesser song-writer it had the potential to be sprawling, disjointed and dense, that it isn’t is a testament to the skill of Jeff as a songwriter. It probably wouldn’t be a lesser album if you knocked a few tracks off , but it wouldn’t be a much better one either. Letting the 20 tracks wash over you as a whole and listening as the individual joys slowly unfurl themselves to the listener is a complete joy. It might not be the immediate thrill that far too many people seem to think everyone wants, but the attention to detail and subtly of the arrangements and harmonies is stunning.
Nearly every track has something to love on it. The crunching guitar sound in the short, sharp wake-up call of an opening track, Don’t Let Me Be So Understood. The stabs of piano and stunning, cooed backing vocals, courtesy of Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe of Lucius in the chorus of breezy, pop-song Low-Key. The electronic haze that starts Slow Love that gradually resolves into a full blown prog-track. The disjointed dualing guitar solos and crisp drumming in the easy paced High as Hello.
The album remains fresh partly because of the variety Jeff is capable of as a songwriter, there’s adventurous prog in the vein of Pink Floyd or Radiohead, I’ll Sing It sounds particularly like the latter, but there’s also beautiful acoustic tracks, such as the folk tinged Fake Fur Coat and the lonesome sounding Pigeons, a song about his kids growing up and the realisation they will eventually leave him behind, all played out over an acoustic guitar and a gently gorgeous organ swell.
The best of the experimental, proggier tracks is the superb Diamond Light pt.1 (pt.2 presumably didn’t make the cull from 90 tracks to a measly 20!) The drumming is frankly fantastic, influenced by Spencer’s jazz routes as well as a clear fondness for Phil Selway‘s work with Radiohead, it’s the got the same feeling of complexity and crispness, the timing is metronomic throughout. Synths buzz, there’s a blast of what sounds like horns and the whole thing has a slight middle-eastern feel, it implodes on itself collapsing to a eerily bleeping phone keytone, before coming back to life as the drums crash back in and Jeff asks “are you scared or are you frightened, terrified of being alone?” It’s frantic and fantastic in equal measures.
The stripped back numbers are just as strong. Summer Moon’s a breezy, summery pop song about how we’d all be better staying in the womb and avoiding “how hard a broken heart can swoon.” New Moon’s got a wonderful sense of melancholy, and the line “I’ve always been certain, nearly all of my life, that I’d be a burden and you’d be my wife” is laced with a beautifully complex set of emotions.
Nobody Dies Anymore is the real stand out here though, starting off life with what sounds like the band tuning up, before slowly winding up into life via a gentle picked, loose guitar run. Lyrically we find Jeff dreaming of a world where “nobody says goodbye but everybody goes home” ultimately though, putting it to a musical metaphor, Jeff notes “strange I can’t defend, I love how every song ends” for all the pain it causes, endings and death are an inescapable part of living. It’s moving, subtle and beautifully done.
Tinged with sadness, love and an almost naive world outlook it’s an absolutely charming album, it’s complex and requires attention, let it wash over you and it’s as good as anything Jeff’s ever put out, and that’s high praise indeed!
Sukierae is out now on Epitaph Records (UK) & Anti Records/dBpm Records (US)
Tweedy tour Europe in November, including a date at London Palladium on the 4th of November, supported by Arc Iris.