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Ready, Wilco

Jeff Tweedy has evolved, but is that necessarily a good thing?

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Given how their respective careers have evolved, it's odd now to think about the initial relationship between singer-songwriters Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy. As punk-rock kids from Belleville, Illinois, Farrar and Tweedy came together to form Uncle Tupelo. Like contemporaries Nirvana, they drew their inspiration from the great American indie scene of the '80s: Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, the Minutemen, the Meat Puppets. But whereas Nirvana combined this inherited post-punk aesthetic with heavy metal to help forge grunge (for which they have been forgiven), Farrar and Tweedy brought a more rural perspective to the music, combining it with elements of folk and country (though the influence was more conceptual than musical as far as the latter is concerned) to accidentally create something called "alternative country" (for which they have been forgiven as well).

At the time, Tweedy seemed like the sidekick, the more juvenile right-hand man to Farrar's auteur. What a difference a decade makes. In the nine years since the band's breakup, Tweedy's following has grown substantially, while Farrar clings to an ever-shrinking circle of Midwestern and Southern devotees who find cultural comfort in his conservative Americana mythology. We should have seen it coming: Going back to the four albums Uncle Tupelo released between 1990 and 1993, the more unassuming Tweedy has it all over the occasionally blowhardish Farrar.

Tweedy never quite became a full partner in Uncle Tupelo, a situation that surely hastened the now-seminal band's demise, but you can hear him clearer now on those records, adding much-needed lightness and real-life perspective to Farrar's grandiose playacting --some concrete prose to counteract Farrar's cumbersome poetry.

A bass player then, Tweedy only got to contribute three songs to the band's genre-creating 1990 debut No Depression, but that was enough to separate himself from the romanticized working-class-hero ethos Farrar was already spouting. For the Gulf War-era album, the young Tweedy contributed "Train," in which he sings of sitting in his car at a railroad crossing, watching car after car loaded down with military equipment sail by, and muses, "I'm 21, and I'm scared as hell." In retrospect, it seems a lot more real than Farrar's second-hand landscape of graveyard shifts, factory belts, and "On liquor, I spend my last dime." Tweedy also contributes the friendly front-porch knownothingism of "Screen Door," which tweaks the band's self-conscious ruralism just as it offers an honestly seductive slice of regionalism ("Sometimes, it snows, but when it does, it doesn't last long").

Tweedy broke out on the next year's Still Feel Gone, copping the lead cut with the anthemic lost-love song "Gun" and delivering a nice tribute to the Minutemen's late lead singer on "D. Boon." Next up was the all-acoustic March 16-20, 1992, which still feels like a Farrar project. He (quite skillfully) offers a slate of originals that replicate the feel and sentiment of the Depression-era protest songs the band covers. Tweedy darts around the edges with the sweet "Wait Up" and the more mysterious "Black Eye" and "Fatal Wound."

Then came Tupelo's bow, the doubtlessly Farrar-titled Anodyne, a record so musically accomplished that it perfects the notion of "alternative country." Here the division between Farrar and Tweedy was too vast to ignore: Farrar's songs aped wisdom with all the foreboding of an Old Testament prophet (and with a voice so magnificently commanding that it compelled belief); Tweedy's batch of songs (still, to my mind, his best) were just wise --funny, playful, full of insight and the realization that the relationship couldn't last. "Acuff-Rose" was a roots-music tribute devoid of undue reverence. The earthquake-scare meditation "New Madrid" was sardonically in the moment. Best of all was "No Sense in Lovin'" --and if Tweedy's acknowledged romantic life had always rendered Farrar asexual by comparison, this song had to be about Farrar ("I can't stand it when you get so intense").

With the band's breakup, Farrar seemed to have the edge, his new band Son Volt's 1995 debut Trace a more impressive affair than Tweedy's initial Wilco release, the modest A.M., from the same year. But after that, Tweedy left him in the dust: Wilco became a real band, a forum for the classic-rock fun and post-punk experimentation Tweedy could never really explore in Uncle Tupelo. Wilco united two subcultural streams that had gained currency with arty white folks turned off by hip hop: the rootsy alt-country aesthetic Tweedy had helped create and the atmospheric art-rock being popularized by Brits like Radiohead and American psychedelics like the Flaming Lips. Being There followed A.M., but the druggy yet accessible Summer Teeth was the synthesis that made Wilco a star in both camps. Then came Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

An odds-on favorite to top year-end critics' polls, the lavishly praised album might just be the prettiest art-rock record ever made, its busy soundscapes all sweetness and melody, with the anonymous noise and gee-whiz sonic gadgetry inviting instead of distancing, and it's all tied together by Tweedy's genial puppy-dog yelp of a voice. I like the record a lot, until I actually listen to it. And then, trying to figure out just what Tweedy is mumbling about, the effect slips away. Tweedy has followed Farrar in at least one respect: the embrace of evocative gibberish. Not all lyrics have to be direct and concrete, of course (the ever-cryptic Pavement was my favorite band after getting over Uncle Tupelo), but I can't ignore the nagging feeling that this great music merely props up these barely-there songs and that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot's genius back story (rejected by Warner/Reprise and sold back to the band only to be bought for thrice the price by Warner/Nonesuch) is a key part of its reputation.

Tweedy's a likable figure who fronts a great band, but what does it say that the best record he'll ever be a part of is Mermaid Avenue Vol. I, in which all the songs are penned by someone else? Maybe not much. After all, Mermaid Avenue is a work of genius that bests anything any of the other contributors (Woody Guthrie included) have ever done on their own.

Anyway, chances are that Tweedy's downbeat poetry will sound a lot better coming from the stage, when his band (even without Jay Bennett) proves what an exciting and accomplished outfit they are. That's the way it worked on the Summer Teeth tour.

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