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1995 Flashback with Wilco’s A.M.

Observer Scene | Monday, September 22, 2008

There must be something about the Midwest and insight. The king of folk-rock came from a small town called Duluth in Minnesota, while the new Prince of lyrical brilliance was the son of a railroad worker in Belleville, Illinois.When talking about growing up with his father, Jeff Tweedy finds himself describing what was an early yearning for something better. While his father’s only outlet was a six-pack, Jeff found rock and roll at a young age. This new love helped him overcome a childhood plagued by migraines. After high school, Tweedy went on to join fellow long-haired, short-winded, punk-lover Jay Farrar to form the cult band Uncle Tupelo.

Uncle Tupelo put out four stellar albums, widely credited with starting the genre referred to as alt-country. Tweedy scoffs at this notion today, preferring not to compartmentalize rock and roll into somewhat ambiguous categories. Still, Uncle Tupelo was one of the first bands to combine the sound made popular with country pioneers like Hank Williams and the Carter Family with the edge of the punk rock of 1980s acclaim such as The Clash and The Ramones. Uncle Tupelo fostered a loyal following from relentless touring.Uncle Tupelo’s rising popularity, along with the emerging songwriting prowess of Tweedy, led Jay Farrar to leave UT, effectively ending the band. Apparently, the goodwill that led the high school drinking buddies to share songwriting credits, in the vein of Lennon/McCartney, had diminished. Tweedy acted first by taking the remaining members of UT and forming Wilco. Their first album, “A.M.,” features only one member of the current Wilco lineup, John Stiratt.A.M. was released on March 28, 1995, following four brutal months of touring, with Reprise Records. Reprise would later become infamous for dropping Wilco during the recording of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The label, Nonesuch, later picked up Wilco’s masterpiece, and made Reprise the brunt of industry criticism.

“A.M.” is largely an attempt by Tweedy to hold on to Uncle Tupelo’s audience, while simultaneously beating Jay to the record store shelves. The album is a country rock effort, similar in sound to early 1990s records by The Jayhawks and Ryan Adams’ fronted Whiskeytown. A.M. is more lyrically straightforward and less instrumentally ambitious than any Wilco album that followed it, yet the record proves that Tweedy’s worst is better than vast majority of the advertising campaign backed jokes that characterize much of today’s radio.”Box Full Of Letters” is the most engaging song on the record. Tweedy’s goodbye to his lost friend and band mate is witnessed by lines like “I’ve got a lot of your records/ In a separate stack.” The song is preceded by the drunken barroom brawler “Casino Queen,” which shows Wilco doing their best early 1970s Stones impression. “Casino Queen” is a tune often featured in Wilco concert encores, paired with up tempo, fun electric ditties, such as “Monday” and “I Got You (At the End of the Century).”Tweedy’s often scratchy but always engaging voice and an Americana twang characterize A.M. The album moves away from some of the punk elements of Uncle Tupelo, displaying a bigger devotion towards melody. A.M. responds well sounding like your average “B”band influenced effort. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with sounding like The Band, The Beach Boys and The Byrds.

While A.M. is certainly Wilco’s least notable effort, it still deserves a spot in most rock fans’ record collections. Songs like “Passenger Side,” and “Dash 7” display a songwriter with the potential for greater avenues. Like most Wilco records, A.M. had a significant influence on the record that it preceded. Despite those early successes, it still would have been hard to predict that a guy from the middle-of-nowhere Southern Illinois would go on to front what Perry Farell’s Lollapalooza recently described as “America’s greatest rock and roll band.” Yet, no one could have seen the doors some Jewish kid from Duluth was going to blow open either, and that only makes both of the stories all the more delightful.