Monday, February 20, 2012

Wilco, A.M. (1995)

I’ve never really understood the ‘alt-country’ tag when applied to Wilco. I mean you wouldn’t call The Rolling Stones an ‘alt-country band’ because they’ve recorded great country songs like Dead Flowers and Sweet Virginia. The Stones are a rock band and so are Wilco – and a very good one at that. The band’s 1995 debut album A.M. was a strong starter even if it didn’t quite display the more finely-tuned pop sensibilities of their later work. The only really straight-out ‘country’ song is That’s Not the Issue with its bluegrass finger picking, and there’s a nice little bit of banjo on I Thought I Held You. The most obvious influence is the aforementioned Rolling Stones, especially on the rocker Casino Queen which would fit neatly on Exile on Main Street.

Jeff Tweedy’s prescription drug problems are a recurring theme in his lyrics and it starts with the opening track of the album ‘I must be high / to say goodbye.’ On Passenger Side as he rolls another number for the road, he begs the ‘only sober person’ he knows to ‘get behind the wheel.’ ‘I got a court date comin’ in June / I’ll be drivin’ soon.’ Box Full of Letters captures the dynamics of the relationship breakdowns of youth with the classic line, ‘I got a lotta your records / in a separate stack / Some things that I might like to hear / but I guess I’ll give ‘em back.’ It’s a catchy hook-laden song with a driving guitar part and if there were any justice in the music world it would have been a Top 40 hit.

The title and the retro radio of the front cover evoke Tweedy’s fascination with the noise-making potential of radio components, a mania that will be put to more experimental musical uses on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born. My colleague Jon Case first recommended this album to me saying that it reminded him of his youth driving his car around as he grew up in Michigan. That makes sense in a way hard to define. If there is ‘country’ in Wilco it’s ‘country and mid-western.’ Not a perfect album but showing the potential of the future perfection to come, I give A.M. four stars.


Joshua M Walters said...

Yeah, I think the 'alt-country' tag is a misnomer. Perhaps it is a product of the 90's scene (Smashing Pumpkins fans were like, "Why does anyone in Chicago like Wilco? They're so country!"). Or perhaps it was their roots in the more blue-grassy Uncle Tupelo. Nevertheless, banjo and violin are surefire ways to be associated with country music. But, as you say, it's better characterized as Rock. I agree.

I still think this is one of their best albums. The song structures are so pure and simple. It's ridiculously accessible to so many audiences. Indeed, it is great driving music for a hot summer day with the windows down.

Dash 7 - sounds like a lost Bruce Springsteen song, right?

Glen O'Brien said...

Thanks Josh. Yeah the Springsteen analogy is a good one. I remember when his "The Wild, the Innocent and the E-Street Shuffle" first came out and everybody was saying Bruce was "the new Dylan." He's the only artist ever to have outlived that tag and made a contribution of his own in such a way that his influence can be discerned in a lot of different artists. Still not as great as Bob though :)


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