Friday, June 10, 2011

Wilco- A.M.

If I may: upon its release, Wilco's A.M. got an undue amount of grief and bad mouthing from every side imaginable. Even members of the band, in particular Jeff Tweedy, regard the album as a failure, inspiring him to craft the massively ambitious follow-up, the double album Being There.

While that may be the only silver lining of this record for most people, I have the strong impression that if anyone bothered to listen to the thing today, with all the Depression/rivalry with Jay Farrar's Son Volt in the distant past, they'd discover a decent little album with some fantastic songs. After all, Wilco often bust out fan favorites 'Casino Queen', 'Box Full Of Letters', and 'Passenger Side' as crowd pleasing stompers during their shows. If three great songs don't exactly a great album make, they do help make it a good one. In other words, A.M. is, depending on your familiarity, not as bad as you remember or not as bad as you've been led to believe.

I would add 'Too Far Apart' to that list of great songs from this album. As this is the only Wilco release on which Brian Henneman appears, his lead guitar playing on this track makes it among the most unique in the Wilco canon for that reason alone, though the mid-60s Dylan-esque organ stabs and ramshackle drumming help make this my pick for most underrated, unknown Wilco song. It's simply a rocking little album closer, unassuming and casual, the sort of thing critics and disappointed music fans probably derided the album as being boring or underwhelming for. Which means to me, it's populist and fun, hard to hate but also difficult to praise or critique in a meaningful way.

Yes, what strikes me most about A.M. is its populist appeal. Not so much as a country-rock record patterned in the rustic-by-way-of-folk-and-rock Bob Dylan/Neil Young style, the album title is also a dead giveaway for the band's aim, making music that would feel welcome next to, say, The Band on a classic rock station. Sure, there's some twang to tracks like the modest 'That's Not The Issue', the record's undiscovered treasure (next to 'Too Far Apart', anyway), featuring some spirited banjo picking and pedal steel guitar licks. Sure, nothing on here hints at the stronger rock, pop, and later, experimental elements that were to come, to say nothing of the forthcoming greater artistic ambition. Yet listen to this in the context of the band's discography as it stands in 2011 and you'll find that, as a whole, A.M. is closer in sound and spirit to Being There than Being There is to Summerteeth and everything after.

This may sound strange, especially coming from someone who generally loathes brainless, feel-good pop music, but even I enjoy modest, good-time music now and again. And A.M. is just that; nothing more, nothing less. Not every song is great or an amazing piece of art but with an album like this, it's unnecessary. Furthermore, it's ironically almost an asset that some of the songs are mediocre because, at a party (the ideal place for such music), it's nice to have a break to get up and grab another beer or greet those lackadaisical friends showing up fashionably late.

All of that said, A.M. is without a doubt Wilco's worst album. Being There is a more artistic and enduring rejiggering of its aesthetic minus the boozy fun-time country-rock swing, as if Tweedy was finally putting in a genuine effort to try. By which I mean, not only to try to best former Uncle Tupelo bandmate Jay Farrar but also to carve his name on the tree of rock history. Whatever record you think he managed to complete both of those with--I wasn't totally sold until A Ghost Is Born, which probably sounds insane--I don't think anyone would claim he did it with the debut. Still, calling A.M. Wilco's worst album is analogous to calling Grizzly Bear's Horn Of Plenty their worst, too. Both are true statements, though those debuts are quite different in spirit and tone from what they would go on to do, to say nothing of personnel changes. Thus I would append the claim to be a variation on the sophomore slump rather than "worst album." So, no, those albums aren't the worst; they're the "freshmen slump" of both bands.

3 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

No comments: