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the pathetic caverns - music by artist - Wilco

eclectic reviews and opinions


Being There

(Reprise, 1996)

Some of you may have noticed that there hasn't been a new review in kind of a while.

There's a bunch of reasons for that -- my day job got awfully intrusive, for a bit, kinda odd when you consider that I don't actually have one, as such. And I spent a couple months being broker than I ever really figured on being again, kinda odd when you consider how hard I've been working. And then I got laid up by this really ghastly flu ...

But, also, I was jammed up. I couldn't write any other reviews until I finished this one. And this one was really hard (not to mention long.)

Why so hard? It's my favorite album of the year. Oughtta be easy for me to write about it, right? wrong...

It was at a concert -- that 'HFS sponsored thing with Fiona Apple, the Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLachlan -- that I figured it out. I realized during Sarah's set that I could get caught up in the music and enjoy it, or take a mental step away from it and pick it apart, like one of those optical illusion things, where the blocks seem to come out of the page, and you blink, and then pop! they recede into it. And I realized that, as a music reviewer (as opposed to a critic, of which there are actually damned few) I'm only really useful when I can balance between those two states -- if nothing sweeps me away, and I stop enjoying music, I become one of my jaded, professional elder cousins (naming no names). But if I can't be at least a little critical about something -- if I hear it just as a fan -- then I'm not being objective enough to do anything other than gush over a record, which doesn't tell anybody anything very much.

So, basically, I've been trying to come up with objective things to say about this record. I've followed the press on it, naturally, and the standard crit-party line seems to go something like "some good songs and playing, but overlong and overly derivative." I tried to hear that, really I did. I tried to find the song that I would cut if the record were chopped down to a single disc. Maybe "What's the world got in store?" or "Why would you wanna live?" but then I find myself humming them when I'm waiting in line at the grocery store. Hell, I spent a couple months just trying to figure out if I like disc one or disc two better (the answer: depends on my mood). Derivative? Well, yeah, I hear bits and pieces of stuff that seems familiar, no denying that -- but they still come together to make a whole that seems very fresh.

If I were going to say just one thing about this record, it would be this: the first time I heard it (on a road trip to central pennsylvania), it felt like it had already been my favorite record for years.

And right there you see the problem: objectivity blown. I can reel off reasons why I like this record. For example: Tweedy's lyrics are better than most everybody is giving him credit for. They're deceptively simple, reminding me of nothing so much as Big Star's Sister Lovers in the way they express doubt and uncertainty, tempered with a little bit of hope. I was amazed to learn that Tweedy was sober and happily married when he wrote most of these songs, 'cause the anguish and longing that runs through 'em sure feels fucking real to me.

I can even reel off some reasons why I'm surprised that I like this record. More than one song that mentions "rock and roll" in the lyric? A song about being in the studio recording a song? Christ, it wasn't that long ago that just having a banjo on a record probably would've been enough to put me off it.

What I can't do, though, and maybe I'm a little scared to try, is tell you why I love this record. 'Cause I know it's not rational. I know that I can't remember the last time an album meant quite as much to me -- Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville probably comes closest. Those moments when the singers seems to be telling your story as much as they're telling their own. Being There has a lot for me.


13 February 1997

9:30 Club (Washington, DC)

I thought Wilco got off to a shaky start with a sloppy rendition of "Misunderstood," the long, slow-building opener from their brilliant new record, Being There. Singer/songwriter Jeff Tweedy complained of feeling sick and feverish. After the third song or so my friend Melissa whispered, "don't they look bored and sick of being on tour?" I nodded my agreement and attempted to resign myself to a disappointing show.

But somewhere there was one of those magical rock'n'roll transitions. The guys on the stage managed to at least look like they were having fun, the energy level picked up and that current started flowing back and forth between the audience and the performers. That's the most mystical thing you'll ever hear from me; no way I can explain it, but it happens, sometimes, and it's the reason I don't think any recording can capture what can make a live performance extraordinary. Hell, it's the whole reason I go to shows.

Wilco's performance wasn't exactly extraordinary -- but it was damn good. The material was drawn primarily from Being There, with a few songs from Wilco's first record, A.M., and a sprinkling of Uncle Tupelo numbers. One of the things that makes Wilco such a good live band is that they've got the chops to take the songs in many different directions. Despite some roaring rave-ups, Being There is often a very introspective record, and gets a lot of its texture from the piano playing of lead guitarist Jay Bennett. (In an excellent interview recently in Raygun magazine, Tweedy mentioned that he pushed Bennett to play piano on the record because it wasn't his primary instrument, and he liked the artistic tension of someone whose reach exceeded his technical grasp.) Although Bennett started the evening on the keys, though, he wound up playing guitar most of the night, helping to pull the (pretty neat) trick of transforming inward-looking songs to fit the rock'n'roll concert environment.

On the record, f'r example, "Someone Else's Song" is a stark, hushed ballad. My personal interpretation is that "Someone Else" might be Gram Parsons in a quiet moment; that's neither here nor there I guess. But on stage the other night, "Someone" got the second-most-drastic facelift of the night as Bennett, kneeling in front of his amp, sculpted the chords of the song from pure feedback howl. (Damn fine job of it, too -- stayed in key almost throughout.) And while a noisy rearrangement is often a last resort of a band clowning around, I didn't think that Wilco lost the emotional core of the song -- it was a different, but not necessarily less valid, version of the same vision.

Some of the other re-arrangements fared less well artistically -- the post-drunk-driving anthem "Passenger Side" was always a little jokey, and I think the hoarse hyperspeed version works fine -- but the AC-DC-ized powerchord version of the formerly Byrdsian "Box Full of Letters" just seemed like trashing a good song.

Of course, some people think that "Letters" is a kiss-off to Tweedy's former bandmate in Uncle Tupelo, Jay Farrar -- which could explain why Tweedy wants to play the song and trash it at the same time, as Tweedy is working hard to shed his new band's associations with the "No Depression" / "Insurgent Country" scene that Tupelo helped start.

A big guy named Charlie was standing -- well, swaying -- near me most of the night. "Where's the banjo?" he hollered at one point. Tweedy fixed him with a glower. "Up your ass," he responded. He made a joke of it, later telling newest band member Bob Egan to take a solo that sounded "just like a banjo" and working the "Dueling Banjos" theme into the ramshackle extended jam on "Casino Queen" -- but I don't think it was all a joke. People come to see Tweedy expecting something other than what he wants to deliver. Charlie, whiskey-breathed, confided to me that he thought Son Volt (Farrar's new band, which has a reputation for reproducing their records note-for-note on stage, though I haven't had a chance to see 'em yet, personally) "kicked Wilco's ass" live. "Put that in your review," he said.

Thing is, Tweedy and his band are clearly, at the moment, into playing rock'n'roll with a little country flavor, not the other way around. And they're not about playing the exact arrangements on the record, either (Tweedy was even reworking some of the lyrics). And it must be frustrating that some of the old fans to don't want to follow the band's new direction. But if you can put aside your preconceptions -- or if you don't bring any to start with -- this band can deliver a helluva show.

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