This album had a movement and a magazine named after it, so its importance simply cannot be questioned. No Depression was a pivotal album that helped make it cool for rock fans to like country music again, but 13 years and an aggressive reissue campaign later the reason why this landmark album still matters is because of its driving music, which is much more rock than country. It rocks hard, too, but when the pianos, mandolins, pedal steel guitars, banjos, and harmonicas kick in they sound right at home, especially when accompanied by lyrics about “the broken spirited man” who has “lost all hope” after “spending my last dime.” Indeed, depression and despair fill these insulated, alcohol-soaked (one key song – the best one - is even called “Whiskey Bottle”) Midwestern tales about dead end jobs and working the “Graveyard Shift” on a “Factory Belt.” Jay Farrar was clearly the band’s primary creative force at this point, but Jeff Tweedy also sings several leads and the duo sometimes duet. Aside from their excellent cover of The Carter Family’s title track and “Screen Door,” even the most overtly twangy country songs here have a definite rock drive, and for pure raw energy this is the Uncle Tupelo album to get, though they would further refine their country craft and songwriting consistency later on. Inspirational verse: “don’t want to go to the grave without a sound.”
Still Feel Gone (Rockville ’91, Columbia/Legacy '03) Rating: B+
This often-overlooked album continues where No Depression left off, but is slightly less hard rocking and more wide-ranging overall. The songs are again about blue collar boozers in industrial small towns, but the album is lyrically more mature, while the band's increasingly layered sound could again (for the last time) be called "country grunge." Though his comparatively few contributions were generally the weaker efforts on No Depression, Jeff Tweedy starts to come into his own here, in particular with "Gun," a loud rocker with a vibrant energy, as well as on mellower songs such as "Watch Me Fall," a catchy, country influenced song featuring fine fingerpicking from Farrar, and "If That's Alright," an atmospheric keyboards-laced ballad. Though they’re still good, Farrar's songs are probably less impressive overall than on No Depression, but at this stage he's the more distinctive singer of the two, and he does deliver "Looking For A Way Out," which effectively channels the spirit of Crazy Horse, and "Still Be Around," a tremendously affecting ballad that's the album's best song. Actually, this is a consistently solid album, but sometimes the band's hybrid sound seems overly chaotic, and some of the songs fail to stand out from the pack. Fortunately, the twin strengths of Farrar and Tweedy is often in evidence, and Mike Heidorn wails on his drum kit throughout, making Still Feel Gone a very worthwhile transitional album, though it’s probably the Uncle Tupelo album that I’m least likely to listen to.
March 16-22, 1992 (Rockville ’92, Columbia/Legacy '03) Rating: A-
Unplugging their guitars and containing a near equal mix of cover tunes and original compositions, this Peter Buck produced album was a complete about face from what came before it. Although not unprecedented (Yo La Tengo had done something similar on Fakebook two years earlier), this album must've been shocking upon its release, even more so because it's so accomplished. Sure, sometimes even their acoustic songs are loud, but more often than not the guitars sound as tired as Farrar's weary old man voice (that’s a compliment). Again Tweedy holds his own, but his raspy voiced songs on the whole seem less weighty than those sung by Farrar, who again delivers the album's standout performance on the lonesome ballad "Moonshiner." That said, there are plenty of other highlights (among the rest, I'm probably most partial to "Grindstone," “Coalminers,” “Shaky Ground,” "Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down," “Black Eye,” "Sandusky" (the album’s lone instrumental), and "Wipe The Clock"), and the mostly traditional cover songs are obscure enough to come across as originals to most people. By turning down the amps and becoming subtle storytellers, the band has actually upped the intensity on these demo-like songs, which are helped along by the band's ever-improving musicianship. Mark Heidorn, on his last album with the band, doesn't even play on some songs, but when he does his understated touch is in stark contrast to his old battering ram style. Fact is, the group (with help from Brian Henneman on banjo, bouzouki, mandolin, and slide guitar) has learned to play what each song calls for, rarely overplaying their hand, and though perhaps some primal excitement is sacrificed as a result, the low-key rewards are easily justified. In fact, many fans feel that this is the album on which Uncle Tupelo truly "came of age," and though cracks in the band's ranks were beginning to show - for the first time, individual songwriting credits are given out, and Tweedy and Farrar collaborate on only two songs - March 16-20, 1992 (the week the album was recorded) sees an artistically mature and musically adventurous band coming up with a minor classic.
Anodyne (Sire/Reprise ’93) Rating: A
Along with Minneapolis’ The Jayhawks, Uncle Tupelo was the brightest light in continuing the tradition of the late great Gram Parsons. That tradition was to produce rock music with a distinct country feel, though Parsons leaned much further towards the country side of things. Uncle Tupelo emerged in the early ‘90s sporting a hybrid punk rock/country sound (which was likely influenced by The Replacements as well as Parsons), but by the time of Anodyne they’d left behind their punk tendencies, resulting in their most accessible album. Fiddles, pedal steel guitars, banjos, and dobros occupy prominent positions on most of these songs, giving them a lonesome country slant. In addition, Uncle Tupelo’s two distinctly different singers and songwriters are each at the top of their game; for all their differences, both singers have that affecting hitch in their voice that gets me every time, and these down to earth (and generally down and out) musings are often well articulated and moving. Most of the album is mellow, mournful, and melodic (“Slate,” “New Madrid,” “Anodyne,” “Fifteen Keys”), but a few hard driving rock songs (“The Long Cut,” “Chickamauga,” “We’ve Been Had”) show off a band who’s at home with any type of song. This makes for quite a nice mix; I like the Doug Sahm cover “Give Back The Key To My Heart” (on which the old man himself guests) as well, while “The Long Cut” and the terrific title track, a timeless ballad on which Farrar gives arguably his most affecting vocal ever, are both among the band’s best songs ever. Several other songs here could be given that designation as well, and if I could pick one nitpicky complaint it would be that perhaps a couple of the earthy slower songs could use an energy boost; this problem would also occasionally plague subsequent Tweedy/Farrar projects. Like Parsons, Uncle Tupelo had a small but loyal following but little impact commercially, though in retrospect both would be seen as pioneers of sorts due to their immense influence on fellow musicians. Also like Parsons, Uncle Tupelo would die a premature death, but whereas Parsons died of a drug overdose, Farrar simply left the strained relationships in Uncle Tupelo to form his own band. When he prophetically sings “no more will I see you” on the album’s closing track (“Steal The Crumbs”) you can practically hear this talented band disintegrating, and Anodyne became both the band’s musical peak and swan song. Note: Farrar’s new band was called Son Volt, while Tweedy took some of the support players from this album (Max Johnston, Ken Coomer, John Stirratt) and formed Wilco.
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