The Litmus Band
Wilco stands alone in the current Rock Moment as the one band everybody (except perhaps metalheads and teen-pop minions) has to have an opinion on. Ever since Jeff Tweedy wrenched himself out from under the shadow of Uncle Tupelo more than ten years ago, folks have been sounding off about these guys. First it was whether Wilco's debut was better or worse than the first disc by ex-Tupelo leader Jay Farrar's Son Volt. Then, with the advent of 1998's Summerteeth, Americana purists accused Wilco of abandoning its own roots in favor of such heresies as synth-pop flourishes and massed backing vocals.
The experimental proclivities of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot got the band kicked off the Reprise label in 2001, but it was released the following year by Nonesuch to huge critical and commercial success, along with attendant backlash. The electronic noise breaks and guitar freakouts on the most recent Wilco CD, A Ghost Is Born, make the sonic excesses of Yankee Hotel seem mild in comparison, alienating as many fans as they thrill. As for peers and critics, ADD-suffering alt-country poster boy Ryan Adams goes out of his way to attack Wilco in interviews every chance he gets, and in a review of another band a few months back, the Houston Press's own John Nova Lomax felt compelled to accuse Wilco's fans of liking them out of a "misguided sense of hipster duty."
"Well, like the saying goes, print what you want as long as you spell the name right," chuckles Jeff Tweedy over the phone. "For some reason I find it very gratifying that people care enough to argue about us or use us as an example." He does take exception to an anecdote that appeared in a Press feature on Camper Van Beethoven this past winter, in which CVB leader David Lowery claimed that a youthful Tweedy once buttonholed him at length for musical guidance. "I love David Lowery," says an incredulous Tweedy, "but I read that story and he is full of shit. The event he described never happened. I have no idea why he would fabricate something like that. Maybe he thinks we haven't given Camper enough props or something "
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As for the idea that Wilco has somehow betrayed its roots or its fan base over the years, Tweedy is adamant. "I find that whole mind-set very presumptuous about our intentions, as if people could somehow know what's going on inside our heads. I would say that all the way back to Uncle Tupelo, all we were ever trying to do was be contemporary, using what was in our environment to build our music. That's really the whole point of art to me, taking what's around you and making something fresh out of it. But we never felt any loyalty to any one style or genre or anything. The idea that we would have to be faithful to some imagined past is completely off the mark."
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The entire notion of "purity" in popular music also sets Tweedy off. "Hank Williams [Senior] gets held up as some example of purity these days, but the guy used to walk around with a copy of Cashbox magazine in his back pocket; he could always tell you exactly where all of his singles were on the charts. He wanted people to hear his songs, and he wanted to make money I guess the best I could hope for is that if we just keep doing what we do, maybe someday far in the future someone'll hear Wilco and decide that we're 'pure,' " he says with sarcastic glee.
Things are at an exciting point for Wilco as a musical entity. One of the most controversial elements of A Ghost Is Born is the presence of lengthy, anarchic guitar solos, performed by Tweedy himself. More evocative than skilled, rambunctious and occasionally atonal, they call to mind nothing so much as an amalgam of White Light/White Heat-era Velvet Underground, My War-period Black Flag and Neil Young at his wildest, all in the service of Tweedy's highly arranged pop-rock chamber pieces, which happen to sound nothing like any of these three influences. But since finishing Ghost, Wilco has been joined full-time by legendary journeyman guitarist Nels Cline, known for his work with the Geraldine Fibbers and Mike Watt as well as a respected player of jazz and improvised music. I ask how the addition of Cline has affected Wilco's live show.
"Besides making it kick ass?" asks Tweedy, with somewhat immodest but infectious enthusiasm. "Honestly, we've played some amazing concerts lately. Nels and I are very different players, obviously, and we go about reaching our catharsis in different ways, so the contrast makes it very interesting. There's a fair amount of improvisation night to night and we're pretty much splitting the guitar solos down the middle. Nels is a great sort of role player, and seems to enjoy playing rhythm parts while I do the leads just as much as doing his own solos."
The tour has been a chance for the members of the new Wilco lineup to get to know each other musically. They won't be debuting any unheard material, although the new arrangements of back-catalog tunes are bound to be somewhat revisionist. In fact, revision has been a hallmark of this band's history almost from the start, with Tweedy and bass player John Stirratt the only founding members still around after years of revolving-door-style personnel changes, a phenomenon that reached its dramatic apogee with multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett's very public firing during the filming of the Wilco documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.
Whether you blindly worship or reflexively reject the whole Wilco thing, one matter is clear: This is a band facing stubbornly forward, marketing itself through all available channels yet unwilling to trim its explorations. Does this make them the most commercially successful avant-garde band ever, or just pretentious wankers daring their fans to lose patience and consign them to the dungpile of history? As Jeff Tweedy himself sings with joyful abandon -- or poker-faced cynicism -- at the end of A Ghost Is Born: "The best song will never get sung / The best life never leaves your lungs / So good, you won't ever know / I never hear it on the radio / Can't hear it on the radio."
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