Monday, September 8, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On #113 - Wilco - Being There

Wilco are rightfully acknowledged as one of the best and most important American rock bands currently making music.  This consensus seemed to develop around the time of their landmark 2002 album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and the publicity surrounding its release (or lack thereof).  That story has been recounted many times (see the documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart if you're unfamiliar) and YHF is a great album.  But for my money, Wilco's true masterpiece came a little earlier in their career with the 1996 double album Being There.  Wilco came to be after the breakup of pioneering alt-country band Uncle Tupelo.  Jeff Tweedy led the new group and their debut A.M. was a pleasant slice of soulful country rock.  Tweedy and co. seemed well on their way to becoming a latter day Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers with a little Gram Parsons thrown in.  But they had other, grander plans.  This became evident with the release of Being There, a major statement album that kept a good deal of the alt-country sound while expanding in a wide variety of directions.

Probably the biggest statement Tweedy and the band made with the album was releasing it as a double CD.  Its 19 songs clock in at about 76 minutes, which could easily fit on one disc.  But then it would be just another overstuffed CD in an era full of them.  Two discs puts it in the same category as landmarks like Blonde On Blonde and Exile on Main St. and it's no coincidence that Being There plays like a stylistic hybrid of the two.  The first disc kicks off with a blast of noise like nothing the band had produced before and settles into the powerful anthem "Misunderstood."  Everything about this epic tune announces that Wilco is going in an entirely different direction.  Tweedy even co-opts a lyric from late, great Cleveland punk poet Peter Laughner.  Yet, as if to reassure fans that they still have one foot in the alt-country wilderness, they follow with the twangy acoustic number "Far, Far Away."  Next up is "Monday" which hits with a hard blast of rock & soul horns that you'd swear were recorded by Bobby Keys in the basement of Keith Richards' chateau.  "Outtasite (Outta Mind)" is a super catchy rocker that became a little hit.  A different version of the song shows up on disc 2 with a Beach Boys-inspired arrangement.  The band pulls off a superb transition as the closing piano chords of the melancholy "Red-Eyed & Blue" are repeated as the guitar intro to upbeat rocker "I Got You (At the End of the Century)."  Disc 1 concludes with the bittersweet yet infectious "Say You Miss Me."

It's tempting to say disc 2 kicks off the same way as disc 1, but while "Sunken Treasure" bears some resemblance to "Misunderstood," it's a masterpiece all its own.  It's got an uneasy sway, like a boat lost at sea, backing one of Tweedy's best sets of lyrics.  I particularly like the part in the second verse where the backing vocals sing the lines just ahead of Tweedy's lead.  Disc two generally has a quieter, sadder tone than the first disc with tunes like "Someone Else's Song" and "Why Would You Want To Live."  But there's a break midway through for the laid-back soul of "Kingpin."  After the quiet beauty of "The Lonely 1," a tribute to the beautiful sadness behind every great artist, the disc and album concludes with the raucous "Dreamer in My Dreams."  It's a great studio jam that always seems on the verge of totally falling apart but manages to hold it together just long enough.  It's the perfect conclusion to an album filled with equal parts joy and sorrow.

Wilco's road after Being There would get a bit rocky.  Multiple lineup changes came through the years with Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt being the only consistent members and the only members of the Being There lineup still in the band.  The break with multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett was particularly rough.  But they persevered to take their place as one of the definitive bands of our time.  Many great albums have come since and the road to greatness starts with Being There.

            - Adam Reshotko

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