20 Years Later, A Look Back at Wilco’s A.M. Album

by Art Carny

Simple yet iconic, the album cover shows a plain red background and a retro AM radio.

On March 28th, 1995 a band called Wilco released their debut album titled A.M.  Jeff Tweedy, having just unceremoniously left the popular alt-country band Uncle Tupelo, brushed off the post-break up dust and got back to work.  He assembled the band, appointing former Tupelo members bassist John Stirratt and drummer Ken Coomer.  They recorded in the office of their band manager Tony Margherita and hired Anodyne’s producer Brian Paulson.  Tweedy never looked back at what once was, just focused on what could be.

A.M. didn’t exactly get the reception it deserved back in 1995.  It was met with temperate acclaim and seen as Tweedy’s knee jerk reaction to the fallout of Uncle Tupelo with then bandmate Jay Farrar.  It was Farrar’s new band Son Volt that got the overwhelmingly positive critical acclaim with their first release Trace.  Writers and fans alike began to treat the situation as a battle for superiority, which pinned Tweedy and Farrar against each other.  The score was being kept and Farrar had the upper hand.

If I wasn’t five years old at the time I would have done my best to publicly rally on the side of Tweedy, who I thought would always be treated as second fiddle to Farrar had Tupelo stayed together.  This was Tweedy’s chance to shine and showcase his brilliance with total control over the art and content.  A.M. and the reaction from those “in the know” showed that Tweedy was going to be overlooked at first, but the proof was in the pudding.  It’s 20 years later and Wilco has transcended not only expectations others had, but probably even Tweedy’s himself.  A band that once crawled through clubs like Tramps in NYC can now be heard over the speakers at your local Wegmans, on the soundtrack to Boyhoodlive on Letterman, or at their own Solid Sound Festival in North Adams, Ma.

“I Must Be High” was the first ever recorded Wilco song, and there couldn’t be a more fitting song to debut with.  It embodies Tweedy’s writing dynamic which is this kind of balancing act between deeply profound and wittily facetious.  Signed-off as a Gram Parsons and “Honky Tonk Woman” spin off, A.M. found subtle ways to deviate and separate themselves.  “Casino Queen” and “Passenger Side” do play into that 1960’s cruising the highways of Americana stoned and drunk on a search for easy ridin’ times.  “That’s Not The Issue” and “Should’ve Been In Love” struck me as the antithesis to that claim and proved that this wasn’t some novelty piece you could shove passively aside.

The album’s closing song “Too Far Apart” was a precursor for the direction the band would eventually grow into, foreshadowing the following album 1996’s Being There which would mark Wilco’s “edgier” side.  And this is the projection Wilco has been on ever since.  They constantly found ways to evolve, mature, and reinvent their sound.  Band members have come and gone, but the duo of Tweedy and Stirratt remained as the anchors which kept the group steady through these 20 years.  Wico’s current outfit of Tweddy, Stirratt, Glenn Kotche, Nels Cline, Pat Sansone and Mikael Jorgensen form what could only be compared to a dynasty – think 1960’s UCLA Bruins, Jordan’s Bulls, or the 1927 Yankees.

So take a moment to celebrate A.M.’s 20th anniversary by revisiting the album or giving it a try for the first time.  We all had to start somewhere, Wilco just happened to do it with a creation in reaction to reincarnation.  What does it mean?  Find out for yourself:

Posse – Soft Opening

by Art Carny

Top tracks: Interesting Thing No. 2, Afraid, Talk

It was three o’clock on a Wednesday morning and I found myself deep in thought.  So I decided to hunker down to the computer and start typing, about what exactly I wasn’t sure.  I looked at the monitor’s digital clock and the realization hit me that it was three in the morning on the third day of the week in the third month of the year.  Then the number three, like a swarm of bees, began to buzz and flitter through my brain.  I envisioned triangles of all lengths and angles, the strongest of the shapes which no force could bend.  I could see the Stooges, the blind mice, and the Bronte sisters.  I envisioned what could only be an entranced supernatural reverie of the father, son and holy spirit, brahma, shiva, and vishnu, zeus, poseidon, and hades. I thought about the rule of three that states three is the perfect progression.  We are born, we live and we die.  a²+b²=c²…

Naturally this line of thinking turned to music, which is a subject never far from the segment of my brain that elicits creative thought.  I came to the conclusion that some of my favorite bands of all time are trios, that they too were not exempt from this guiding principle of threes.  Sleater-Kinney, Yo La Tengo, Galaxie 500, and Violent Femmes to name just a few.  It proved to me that three is truly all you need.  Sure, you will probably have to decide between a bass or rhythm guitar, but the most successful trios find a way to make a sound that many quads or quintets cannot.

Which brings me to the album of review titled, Soft Opening by Seattle natives Sacha, Paul and Jon.  Constructed out of the triadic traditions aforementioned, Posse bring a tight-knit and resolute sound that can only be accomplished in a minimalist setting with all filler stripped and removed.   What they leave you with, after the marble has been shaved and discarded, is a synesthesia vision of triangular fortitude.  It’s physics after all.

They happen to share something else in common with Yo La Tengo and Galaxie 500 besides being another trio band, in that they seem to have evolved from the same vein and biological family.  The similarities are undeniable, which is why each track stood out so distinctly to me upon first listen.  I had heard the album when it came out a year ago this month and have since then placed it among the canon of all-time greats, another three piece band to add to my collection.

With Soft Opening, the band developed a juxtaposition between what it is to feel empty whilst projecting wholeness.  I was struck by their pairing of sound and lyric which seemed to be an outward expression of, “nah, everything is alright” when inside they’re broken.  Posse has tapped into the emotion of lost proximity.  The frustration you feel when you realize you’re disconnected, “I know you’re gonna talk through this and not care / Someone turn up the heat, it’s so cold in here” which is guided by a guitar and percussion spaced-out smack that builds into a progressive ring and echo.  And yet there is a sophomoric sarcasm behind it all, which you’ll find sprinkled throughout.  There’s certainly no shortage of oh, that was clever moments when listening to this album.

Like most advancements in technology, Posse have found a way to contain a complex software within a minimalist and useable hardware.  And it all circles back to the foundation they are built on in being a three person band.  Sacha, Paul and Jon provide a point in the triangle, each with their own instrument in hand to form an equidistant sound.  If he were alive today, Euclid would claim this to be his favorite of all the metaphorically geometric bands out there today.

Mixtape Monday – Mixtape 2: Side A

by The Insomniac

Ladies and gents and brutes and savages – this is the next installment of our new ongoing series “Mixtape Mondays”, an effort to deliver a coherent sound through a collection of work from many varied artists, all seemingly able to strike a similar chord in our psyche forcing our ears to smile in just the right way.

This time, the theme is “Suburban Angst in a Summer Static”. Enjoy.

Twin Peaks – Wild Onion

by The Insomniac

LIYL: The Walkmen, The Kooks, Bass Drum of Death, The Strokes

Top Tracks: Ordinary People, No Way Out, Mind Frame

I walked outside with just a t-shirt on this week and for once was not crippled by the relentless and brutal arctic hellscape that is Winter in New Jersey. It was glorious and I am glad to say it finally feels like the will to wake up and do something productive each morning is slowly being rekindled. To celebrate, I wanted to dive into an album that smiles at you and screams for attention, something with sand between the tracks and a sunbaked warmth. Wild Onion by Chicago’s Twin Peaks is an upbeat and fast tempo jam that’ll force you to get up and climb something.

In high school, the only Beatles songs I knew were their greatest hits, the ones heard on the radio and played by our parents countless times, the singles that got drilled into our heads whether you liked it or not. Once I was in college however, I decided to use my newly discovered vast amounts of free time to dive into their “deeper” songs, the albums released later in their career where they weren’t afraid to slow it down and get a little trippy – your Magical Mystery Tour, your Sgt. Pepper. Once I discovered these, it was game over. Becoming that temporary die-hard hippie Beatles-fanboy was an inevitable consequence. Nowadays however, I’ve noticed that I’ve been spending more time listening to their older tracks again with newfound appreciation, those 2-minute songs-about-a-girl that defined the tone of the British Invasion. We all know the comparisons people draw between the sounds the band explored, many stating their later work was much better and more inspired than the shallow love-pop that made them famous. In some ways I agree, but in some ways I don’t. There’s a warmth in the simplicity of that music, a certain charm that is inherent to the uptempo ballads about the gal that got away.

Twin Peaks occupies this same realm but with a bit more rust around the edges and, don’t get me wrong, a long way to go to be granted access to the same arena as The Beatles. Each song has a certain longing built into it, it’s staring into the past even though it doesn’t want to. Lead singer Cadien Lake James does not make the slightest attempt at subtlety with this album – this is a heartstruck wanderer of life, screaming his passion for that mystery girl, the one who won’t call back, the one he said too much to, the one who saw him stripped of his masks. It’s a beach party thrust onto a journey through his memories with a sun-drunken haze draped over each riff and enough distortion to match his warped view of the past. It’s an obsession, but one we all can relate to, and in this way it’s charming.

On a couple tracks the focus turns away from the lovely girl and back onto himself, into his mind. “No Way Out”, one of the stronger songs off the record, is a tale of how lost and trapped he was when he tried too hard to be someone he wasn’t, putting on a mask that would please others, hanging on to doubts and reluctance to be genuine like a toxic safety blanket. As James swoons:

Wore a five ton mask while it dragged me closer to death,

Seen it all insane till I put on a fresh set of frames,

I knew practically nothing,

I was a wasted man too scared to really feel,

But with a grasp onto something,

It’s such a bliss to finally glimpse something so real,

I was running from nothing but a good view.

Though it’s the 2-minute beach jams that really define the sound of this album, after a couple listens, I think Twin Peaks truly shines on the slower tracks. The criminally short “Stranger World” is an instrumental interlude complete with a gorgeous wandering saxophone and seems like it could just keep playing on and on, like an afternoon daydream. “Ordinary People”, my favorite off the album, is about how the girl at the forefront of his mind just isn’t like the ordinary people flooding his normal day to day interactions, a light in a sea of dim colors. The guitars slow down and glimmer instead of spark and a sea of synths and background vocals envelop the senses in a garbled but gorgeous progression to a final release, like painting a sunset. It may be over now but he knows she’ll be back again.

As the temperature rises and you decide to slunk out of your Winter vampire dungeons with a vigor to take to the ocean and tan that ghostly white skin, blast this on the way there. Here’s to a jam and to the all girls that have us tripping.

Enjoy.

Mixtape Monday – Mixtape 1: Side B

by Art Carny

B-sides have been proven to be the really cool part of any album, because of the possibility the listener will find a undiscovered gem or a track overlooked by the bigwig music label execs.  Historically, the separation of an A and B-side was introduced by record companies to showcase the clearly mainstream tracks destined to be Top 40 material on side-A, relegating the truly alternative and underappreciated efforts to exist in the realm of B.

The B-side for the sake of mixtapes will always be “back cover” material.  Much like records before them, the B-side of mixtapes are meant for the die-hards and the types that prefer to dig rather than be spoon fed.  The B-side of our first mixtape was drafted in this same surreptitious tradition for all you subterrestrials out there looking and searching for treasures amongst trash.

The theme: timeless pop in a slacker half nelson squeeze.  Enjoy!

Muse – Psycho

by The Insomniac

After almost two and half years without releasing any new tracks to the world, Muse have finally released the first single, “Psycho”, off of the upcoming Drones. They’ve assured their fans that they’d be returning to their “old” sound, stripped from the experimental synthpop and orchestral symphonies and back to electric guitar, bass, and drums – the sound that made them famous. Sadly, this attempt misses the mark in a truly cringeworthy fashion.

I’ve been a fan of this British arena-rock trio since my high school days, which was when I realized that there was such a thing as new music and that I had the ability to listen to what I wanted to instead of rocking out to washed up groups from my father’s generation. Once I discovered Muse, they immediately stood out to me and became my first true musical obsession. Their album Origin of Symmetry continues to be my favorite of all time and, to me, represents the pinnacle of the sound that really defined them. It was dark and raw and it twisted around Matt Bellamy’s lost loves and his blossoming dysfunctional relationship with the world around him, which was in the process of morphing into something alien and sinister. They danced around their angsty confusion and didn’t mind letting it drive them mad. Bellamy let the guitar play him and it screamed and wailed. The first single off of OoS, “Plug in Baby”, was even named best riff of the decade by Total Guitar magazine.

mb432gk

Matt Bellamy performing live, 2001.

That was almost 14 years ago and they were 23 years old. Since then, they’ve grown up into men and have drifted into new sounds to the loving support of some and the dripping hatred of other within their fan-base. 2009’s The Resistance and its follow-up The 2nd Law showed a band that had grown out of blowing out amplifiers and smashing guitars, a band who wanted to try their hand at symphonies and synth-ridden pop records. Bellamy’s dysfunctional relationship with that morphing world had also been beaten into an angry revolutionist, as he spent his time crying against powerful corporations, the crimes of Western governments, and conspiracy theories that he sought to expose. A message that certainly warrants its space, but not something to hitch a career on.

I had missed the younger sound – the music itself was crafted from fewer instruments but somehow it seemed bigger than it was. Its rawness and honesty was appealing and resonated with a deep part of me. This new glam seemed like a glittery fancy wrapper on a beaten dead horse. Its message lacked life.

Bellamy announced earlier this past year that their new material would return to what fans heard from the early 2000’s – a welcome return to gritty stripped-down rock ‘n roll. Not all experiments are fruitful and you can’t hate a band for trying. You’d hope that these men would pick up their instruments again and begin shredding with a newfound wisdom, but this first single tells a different story. “Psycho” is all smoke and no fire. Yes, they delivered on a “hard” sound, and Matt’s Manson-built electric guitar takes center stage once again, but it seems they’ve become a parody of themselves here. All subtlety appears to have been ignored after listening to this song’s corny blunt anti-military lyrics.

“I’m gonna make you… a fucking psycho!. Your ass belongs to me now! Are you a human drone? Are you a killing machine?”

Hmmm.. I wonder what he’s getting at. Perhaps he’s been spending too much time sipping expensive coffee with freshman-year philosophy-majors at the local university. Lack of subtlety and lyrical diversity aside, the music itself is repetitive and empty, and for the first time, they sound like a three piece band. They’ve always somehow seemed to emanate a sound bigger than they were, big enough to fill a stadium and kick it in the ass. The main riff itself is a rehash of an old lick Muse used to play after finishing “Stockholm Syndrome” live during their tours. It’s fun, but it collapses under the weight of being the driving melody of a 5 minute song, especially Muse’s first release since 2012.

We’re hoping this first single is not a harbinger of doom for the rest of Drones and that the rest of the album delivers some depth behind that juicy distortion we’ve all missed. The album drops June 5 under Helium-3, so stay tuned you damned dirty apes.

 

Mixtape Monday – Mixtape 1: Side A

by Art Carny

Welcome to the inaugural installment of Mixtape Monday, featuring the very first hand-crafted mixtape of the weekly series.  You can now look forward to a mixtape getting dropped as frequently as Curren$y once dished them out in his prime.

“What makes it a mixtape?” you might ask.  “Thank you for asking” is how I would respond, also with adding that a mixtape should be: thirty minutes long, be created around a central sound or theme, and consist of an A and B side.  This means the mixtape is distinguished in a few formal ways from the ever-popular playlist, which The Rogue Ape implements as a platform to highlight the month’s best, most mentionable, and highly recommendable tracks.

Making mixtapes requires effort in being methodical and purposeful when selecting which tracks to use to create a thematic atmosphere for the listener, which gives us a chance to be fun and creative.  Now sit back and enjoy the experience you get from hearing the seeds we’ve sown personally and for your listening pleasure.

Sleater-Kinney – No Cities To Love

by Art Carny

 

Top tracks: Fangless, No Cities To Love, A New Wave

Hello, dear readers and music freaks.  I’d like to thank the stellar folks at The Rogue Ape for extending the exclusive and privileged invitation to join their contributing team and fraternity.  In a way, this is a sweetly harmonious reunion.  My collaborative resume of side projects include the life force and philosophically-driven Search for Como blogcast and The Gioia Review, which although sadly no longer in action, has brought me here and back to writing about music, joining forces with the mind behind the man behind the myth, the Insomniac and his perspicacious crew.  So in short, hi and thanks.

Speaking of reunions, let’s talk about the album I chose to review: No Cities To Love by Portland’s own Sleater-Kinney, who ended a hiatus that began as an unannounced separation in 2006.  Since then the riot girl trio, although divided, remained active and pleasantly productive.  Corin had a family and pursued a solo career as the Corin Tucker Band.  Janet, the drummer, was involved in oh, let’s see… Quasi, Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks, Bright Eyes, and the side project Wild Flag.  Carrie, also in Wild Flag, pursued an acting career that lead her to co-star in the popular comedy series Portlandia with SNL’s Fred Armisen among other TV and film opportunities.  And yet, after almost ten years on break, the band got back together, recorded an album, and have been touring ever since.

But comebacks in the music world can be undisguisedly and sometimes unabashedly money grabs; the Pixies come to mind.  The tour they last put together seemed like a haphazard front for Black Francis to recapture lightning in a bottle and sell some merch to oblivious teens in the process.  Plus, if you’re not going to have Kim Deal with the band, it’s really not a reunion.

Others can feel like high school reunions, where the band gets back together for obliged reasons and go on a nostalgia tour, only to realize how much they’ve aged and that reasons for the break-up were legitimate and insurmountable; Pavement comes to mind.  Don’t get me wrong, I went to the reunion show at Central Park.  I had to.  I always loved Pavement.  I still look to them as one of the most important groups to come out of alternative music in the last twenty five years.  But they had their window and left their mark.  Malkmus was Malkmus, a brilliant lyricist poet and under-appreciated guitar god that was ultimately very tough to get along with over the period in which they conquered.  As a bystander at the show, you could feel the smarmy Malkmus begrudgingly go along with it, only halfheartedly embracing the moment.  That was 2010 and despite it all, I wish I could see it once more.

No Cities To Love  feels like a sandwich your mom used to make you when you were young.  It was your favorite sandwich and to this day you can still taste the flavors and smell the bread and toppings.  You remember the first time you tasted it and the feeling of home you get when you reminisce about it.  You would probably pay a lot of money to have that same sandwich again, just the way mom used to make it.  This album feels like that sandwich.  It’s so them, so authentic, so unique that it feels as if SK never took a break.  They’ve picked up right where they left off with The Woods in 2005, and in my opinion, created a new feel fit for the time in which they currently exist.  So many times we try to capture a moment long gone, only to find that a feeling can never truly be replicated.  What you do learn over time, which SK teaches us all, is that adapting to the current context is the secret to survival and longevity.

Reunions, much like mom’s sandwich, are simply attempts to recapture a time, a feeling, and a moment.  But this SK reunion is different in so many ways.  Where Black Francis pandered and begged for the crowd’s approval, “I don’t know if you’ll accept me; I don’t know if I accept you. But we have this memory. Can we do it again?” proved the Pixies have nothing left to say.  SK reminded everyone that they were ready to do this together, and more importantly, do it right.  They’ve also shown that they are in charge of their own (self)acceptance.  The fans wanted them back, not the other way around.  The album is proof that patience with timing is everything and that forcing something will never create art.

Chad Batka for The New York Times – SK live @ Terminal 5

This whole reunion business aside, I’d like to talk briefly about the state of girl bands in alternative music today.  When SK met their sudden and quiet demise in 2006, no all-girl roster ever sufficiently filled their spot.  SK provided a baton to be grabbed, but we saw them running a relay race in which they were the only participants.  No girl band has done what they’ve done at the level and complexity they have.  I’ve been a fan and follower of countless women in rock, but they always had male counterparts in the group (Georgia of Yo La Tengo, Kim of Sonic Youth, Britt of Luna, etc.).  It was not until 2013 with the unheralded Hell Bent album from Northampton, MA’s own Potty Mouth did I hear something as original, honest, and veracious come out from a rock band made up of women.  It is important to note that members of both SK and Potty Mouth have astutely pointed out the double standard in rock, which is that no one interviews an all male band and asks them how or why they got into the music as a bunch of men.  We openly accept music as a guy thing, just as we do in sports, and tend to compartmentalize things women do as their own thing, meant to be separated, treated distinctly, and labeled as such.  Let’s face it, no one is making a list of their favorite guy bands, unless they are referring to boy bands, which I find equally repulsive and damnable.

As I gingerly step off the soap box I am proudly perched on, I digress and offer a chance to dive into the album itself.  There’s a real social commentary getting discussed in each song, making the album a conceptual work that confronts the realities faced by women in an eternally unequal society.  In an interview with PBS, Janet Weiss talked about the importance SK’s message is for their audience by saying, “that’s part of my role being a musician and part of why I want to be a musician is to show women an alternative to the sort of the cultural norms and the stereotypes of what we are supposed to do.”  As a guy, I find them to be one of the only true socially-minded and self aware bands out there.  Call them activists or feminists, but the message is universal; we are all here suffering in some way, let’s find a way to band together and realize things can be okay.

Take out preconceived notions of what you think punk sounds like and you’ll begin to find that No Cities To Love is post-modern punk in its truest form.  The album feels much like their live show in that they never take their foot off the peddle.  One after another, each song hits you with a consistent force that remains unwavering from start to finish.  Relentless sounds and sentiments “Clenched fist on a dangling arm/Fight’s over, but I’ll fight on” and just when you’re ready for a breather, they come back with another hook like prizefighters.  It’s because the music never died for SK.  There was always a flame, fledgling when apart, but rekindled and blaring once more.

People who know Carrie for her time spent on Portlandia will be surprised to discover she’s the best lead guitarist in her craft.  Her attention to detail is only appreciated with multiple listens, as many of the complex jangles appear to go unnoticed upon first exposure.  Janet is, without a doubt, one of the greatest drummers I’ve had the chance to hear.  This spans gender, genre, and time.  She goes one hundred miles per hour and each smack is visceral.  As for Corin, I don’t think SK would be who they are without her.  She possesses the most identifiable unique voice in rock, for both the sound and content.  She still hits the high notes and her writing has either improved or stayed along the premiere constant it has always existed on.  Together, they form the most impressive and powerful trio in rock.

The rock world needed SK and their return was welcomed with open arms.  They’ve become more popular now than they were when they walked away.  This reunion was special, much like my return to music reviewing, with a hiatus that began exactly a year ago.  I’ve taken a page from SK’s book and decided that a return to writing with the prestigious and ingenious Rogue Ape brought an opportunity that posed impeccable timing and placement.  I hope you enjoy their album and some of what I write about moving forward.

March 2015 Playlist

March playlist is up ladies and gentlemen. You can calm down and stop crying now, it’s here. Really, just put on your headphones, it’ll be all right.

This go around focuses on electric guitar with a healthy amount of distortion with a bit of synth-ridden psychedelia added for good measure – something to really bang your head to as we ring in some warmer weather and ditch this savage arctic hell.

Enjoy.