Summerteeth (Warner Bros.)
Performing 7:10 p.m. May 2
First American Stage, Nashville River Stages festival
Jeff Tweedy, leader of the rock band Wilco, initially forged his reputation by tangling himself in the roots of traditional Southern music. So who would have predicted that his most fully realized work would come from his head floating in the clouds?
Former co-leader of the well-regarded Americana band Uncle Tupelo, Tweedy has been delving further and further into pop-music experimentation since he formed Wilco in 1994. Until now, though, each Wilco album featured a few songs with fiddle, mandolin, and acoustic guitar. But with the band’s delightfully rich third album, Summerteeth, Tweedy’s divorce from Uncle Tupelo is complete. The only old-time string instrument here is a banjo, and it’s plucked in an atonal way that Earl Scruggs would hardly recognize.
Even though Tweedy might be considered one of the inspirational figures of the ’90s alt-country movement, for now he’s putting his connection with country and folk music behind him. With Summerteeth, he and his bandmatesmulti-instrumentalist Jay Bennett and the former Uncle Tupelo rhythm section of bassist John Stirratt and Nashville drummer Ken Coomerhave created a wondrous pop pastiche that takes melody-rich song structures and expands them with a vast potpourri of odd, unexpected sounds. The album has more in common with such retro pop experimentalists as the High Llamas and the Elephant 6 collective of Neutral Milk Hotel, Olivia Tremor Control, Apples in Stereo, and Of Montreal than with anything connected to the alternative-country movement that Tweedy helped inspire.
While Tweedy’s cheeky updating of classic ’60s and ’70s pop links him with the current wave of young Beach Boys and Beatles aficionados, his songwriting is in a different league (although Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes flashes moments of brilliance). Likewise, his bandmates are more adept and more accomplished than their modern prog-pop peers. Wilco’s spacy sound effects and sugary harmonies are used to add texture to well-crafted tunesthey’re the icing rather than the cake, which is why Summerteeth is a more substantial offering than most of the current Elephant 6 recordings.
Tweedy is undoubtedly the driving force behind Wilco. Each of the songs bear his personal stamp, with cryptic lyrics that draw on his own experiences and dreams. Still, the band wouldn’t be headed in such an interesting direction if it weren’t for the contributions of his fellow travelers. Bennett, in particular, seems to be a major creative force on the new album.
The last member to join the band, Bennett has helped shift Wilco’s focus from guitar to keyboards. This is especially true on the new album, where his austere piano notes and greasy organ grooves provide an inspirational canvas for Tweedy’s musings. Many of the spacier, synthesizer-based sound effects come from Bennett as well. And the natty-haired instrumentalist’s role is never more energizing than on the opening song, “Can’t Stand It,” which rolls along to a dynamic organ-and-guitar tradeoff that recalls the groove on “Hoodoo Voodoo,” one of the standout tracks from Mermaid Avenue, Wilco’s 1998 collaboration with Billy Bragg.
No matter how inventive, the band’s gravitation toward pop music has been viewed by some longtime fans as a grab for mainstream acceptance. Internet message boards and discussion groups are filled with condemnations of Wilco’s latest record, and of the 50 customer reviews posted on Amazon.com, at least 10 give Summerteeth a one-star ranking. Tellingly, most of the nay-sayers blast Tweedy for abandoning alternative-country music, and they view the breezy, buoyant sound that runs through his new work as a sellout.
That’s hard to understand, though, considering how willfully Tweedy has avoided sticking to formula over the last few years. Instead, Summerteeth and its interesting but uneven predecessor, Being There, sound like the work of a restless, creative spirit following his museand perhaps trying to dissociate himself from his former Uncle Tupelo collaborator, Jay Farrar (now of the band Son Volt).
Though Tweedy has largely avoided commenting on his experience in Uncle Tupelo, it’s no secret that he and Farrar parted on acrimonious terms. Tweedy has said he felt increasingly restricted by Farrar’s dour ideas, and that one of the reasons he formed Wilco was to recapture the exuberance he felt when he fell in love with rock music as a kid. He wanted to have fun again, he said, rather than approaching everything with such seriousness.
Those festive yearnings certainly fuel much of Summerteeth, which alternates between jovial up-tempo tunes and beautiful, intimate piano ballads. But beneath the bounce of these cheerful-sounding tunes rests a heart of darkness. Now a family man, Tweedy seems caught between commitment and temptation, between the comforts of home and the pleasures of the flesh.
That torment is rendered nightmarishly clear on “Pieholden Suite.” “There’s a whisper I’d like to breathe into your ear, but I’m afraid to get that close,” he sings in his warm rasp of a voice, an instrument that can be both invitingly friendly and unsettlingly edgy. A few lines later, he softly admits what’s fueling his fears: “And I still care, and I still love you, but you know how I’ve been untrue.”
That theme of faithfulness, or the lack of it, arises in several songs, as the married singer explores what it means to share his life with another person. But with the exception of “My Darling,” an endearingly explicit lullaby to his infant son, he never makes his feelings entirely clear. Instead, his songs favor the oblique over the obvious.
Many seem inspired by the sketchy impulses of the subconscious, as in “Via Chicago,” which opens with a bloody scenario and ends with the singer yearning for the solace of home. If Tweedy’s songs are illusory and open-ended, though, they’re lent poetic force by his wonderfully evocative images, as in “she’s a jar with a heavy lid.” Certain themes do emerge, though: “We’re Just Friends” explores trying to find common ground with a former lover; “How to Fight Loneliness” looks at how easy it can be to get by on a smile rather than showing what’s really inside; “When You Wake Up Feeling Old” offers suggestions for battling the onslaught of time; and “In a Future Age” optimistically portends a better, freer time ahead for mankind.
But those are interpretations, at best; Tweedy prefers gauze to clarity, and he’s careful not to reveal too much of himself or to delineate his feelings too baldly. Instead, what the listener mostly takes away from Summerteeth is gaiety and lighthearted movement. The songs, in their sumptuous clash of structure and cacophony, highlight Tweedy’s smile rather than the conflicted grimace behind it. And that smile is so compelling, so cheeky and engaging, that one can’t help but be won over by it.
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