A.M. / Being There (Rhino / Reprise)
Jeff Tweedy’s Wilco is one of the most respected bands of the last 20 years. They’ve managed to gain critical praise while garnering decent sales and even battling major record labels. Yet, there was a time when all of this was in serious doubt. A pair of reissues from Rhino Records give us a glimpse of the early steps of the band with deluxe versions of their first two albums, A.M. and Being There.
When Uncle Tupelo imploded in 1994, leader Jay Farrar formed Son Volt, while the other remaining members joined Tweedy in Wilco. Initially, it was Farrar that achieved success, both with Son Volt’s debut album, Trace, and its college rock hit single, “Drown.” Sales of Wilco’s debut A.M. paled in comparison. Yet, over time, Wilco has certainly gained momentum, especially with albums like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
Wilco’s debut, A.M., is more direct than anything Uncle Tupelo ever recorded. Many of the songs, like “I Must Be High” or the countryfied “Pick up the Change,” show off Tweedy’s affable personality, while “Box Full of Letters” and “Should’ve Been in Love” are straight-ahead rockers. They cover a lot of territory, from the banjo-led “That’s Not the Issue,” to the crying pedal steel on the somber “Dash 7.” Yet, even the slower numbers seem to carry an easy-going attitude, as if the band was just happy to be playing music again.
The one true standout is the hilarious, lost-your-license-from drunk driving ode, “Passenger Side.” Tweedy sings in true earnest over a fiddle and phased guitar – it’s certainly a taste of what the band would deliver years to come.
Of note of the eight bonus tracks is the last-ever recording by Uncle Tupelo, “If You Find Troubles,” sung by bassist (and future Wilco member) John Stirratt. “Those I’ll Provide” is a Neil Young-inspired, mid-tempo rocker. Plus, there’s an early version of “Outtasite (Outta Mind) that lacks the punch of the Being There version.
In the end, A.M. never steers too far away from the alt country that Uncle Tupelo created. But Jeff Tweedy knew that in order to continue, he was going to have to break the mold. Enter their double album opus, Being There.
Beginning with pounding drums, guitar feedback and Tweedy’s tremeloed vocals, the slow, piano-led “Misunderstood” signaled that things were going to be different this time around. The acoustic guitar and Rhodes piano of “Far, Far Away” is immediately more potent than anything on their debut. The Stones-y rocker “Monday” and a muscled-up “Outtasite (Outta Mind)” was a great one-two punch.
The heavily echoed, slightly out of tune piano on “Red-Eyed and Blue” is reminiscent of Big Star’s Third. “I Got You (at the End of the Century)” is another fantastic rocker, while “Hotel Arizona” actually introduces a funk element to the band, and “Say You Miss Me” shows off their tender side.
Sprawling double albums are almost never this solid – from the space cowboy of “Someday Soon,” to the reworking of “Outta Mind (Outta Site)” that bounces along like the Sesame Street Theme, or the Faces-inspired “Dreamer in My Dreams,” it’s an album full of high moments.
The deluxe edition comes with an entire disc of bonus material. Seven of the tracks are truly unreleased songs, mostly just acoustic demos. The remainder of the tracks are alternate versions of tunes from the original album – there’s yet another version of “Outtasite (Outta Mind),” this one with a Farfisa organ, and a horn-driven rendition of “Monday.”
The real treat is a two-disc set of their live performance at the Troubadour in November of 1996. The 84-minute concert proves that Wilco could mess around in the studio with soundscapes, but strip it down for the live setting. “Someday Soon” is gutsier than the studio and is missing the banjo and echoed vocals. Trading a pedal steel for the studio version’s mandolin, “Forget the Flowers” has a richer quality.
They even throw in a few Uncle Tupelo numbers like “New Madrid,” and “The Long Cut.” The pedal steel is a huge boost to songs like “I Must Be High” off their debut A.M. And, there’s a hilarious “punk version” of “Passenger Side.” Disc two of the live set ends with a quartet of songs recorded in the KCRW studios.
Both A.M. and Being There still stand up quite well despite the years and the added bonus material makes these a must, even if you already own the original versions on CD. –Tony Peters