Descovering Wilco

By Tom MacIntosh

Chicago based alt-rock/country band Wilco (shorthand for ‘will comply’) released a remastered version of their albums Being There (‘96) and A.M. (‘95) in December 2017, it comprises 5 CDs, the first two ‘original’ albums with 19 songs, some new and others re-edited, the 3rd is a collection of outtakes, alternates and demos, then discs 4 & 5 are live performances at the Troubadour in L.A. in 1996.

The band was born after the breakup of pioneer alt/country band Uncle Tupelo, when singer/guitarist Jay Farrar left the group over creative differences with singer Jeff Tweedy, who then formed Wilco with the remaining parts John Stirratt on bass, guitarist Brian Henneman, multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston , Mikael Jorgensen on keyboards, and drummer Ken Coomer. (various changes to the band have occurred since then, such as Jay Bennett on Being There or lately Nels Cline/guitar, Pat Sansone or Glenn Kotche on drums).

They released Being There in ‘96 after tepid critical acclaim of A.M. in ‘95, it had enthusiastic reviews and poor sales and seem barely recognisable on this Deluxe reissue. It is a bundle of past efforts together with 15 previously unreleased bonus tracks including alternate versions of I Got You and Say You Miss Me to name a couple. The live sets make up a 20-song performance at the Troubadour with a combination of both albums, from A.M.s I Must Be High, and full blooded punk version of Passenger Side, to Being There’s Kingpin and Forget the Flowers, and also a couple of Uncle Tupelo tracks, The Long Cut and Gun.

True to Tweedy’s trademark melancholy melodicism as the vehicle to share stories of hard luck, losing streaks, disconnection and disillusionment, with ample supplies of pedal steel work and his soft twangy voice, this is a beautifully sculpted sonic mix of the evolution of an idea started 20 years ago. There is also a splash of unreleased songs like Dynamite In My Soul, which, contrary to the title is a softly strummed folk number that reminds us of the bare-boned spirit of their talent for clean arrangements. Then the twangy country/rock Better When I’m Gone and jazzy Capitol City where their Beatles influence is crystal clear. I Can’t Keep From Talking never made it on a Wilco record, but was cut by a supergroup called  Golden Smog, which Tweedy played with.

Being There Deluxe has nothing new and ambitious to offer, but instead is more of a focus on Tweedy’s charming style of songwriting and composition, as seen on two versions of I Got You (At The End of the Century) where the ‘fat-riffed’ original gives way to a more simmering, subtle number, that again, belies the band’s easy attitude towards toying with their material for atmospheric purposes. Throughout their career, with 10 studio albums, a live double album, and 4 collaborations, 3 with Billy Bragg, and 1 with The Minus 5, and 2 Grammy awards, he has used a variety of guitars, as he explains, “I have a 1965 Gibson SG, which is pretty much my main guitar. I also used an Epiphone Wilshire, the mini-humbucker model, a little bit. Those were my two main electrics, but I have so many guitars. I’ve been buying them forever. I did a few overdubs here and there with a Rickenbacker 330, and also some with a Tele, But for the most part, almost everything is on the SG.

Considered by many to be their landmark record, this extrovert/introvert, naturalist/surrealist collection shows the band’s comfort in everything from wistful country rock, to kick-ass punk, to almost Stonesy rauch that is simply a delight on all fronts. This is one for serious collectors and dabblers alike, it’s quite a ride through the album that discover Wilco to the world.

(Images: ©CordonPress)