Sad Songs Say So Much

Given the subgenre's infatuation with honky-tonk fatalism and singer/songwriter angst, it's no wonder the roots rockers who populate the landscape of altcountry are such a sad, mopey, inward-thinking bunch. Few of the ironically dubbed "No Depression" crew, however, have expanded the vocabulary of depressive expoundings with the lyrical flair and musical inventiveness of Texas singer/songwriter Alejandro Escovedo and Jeff Tweedy, ringleader of the Chicago-based Wilco. And with their latest albums (the former's Bourbonitis Blues (Bloodshot), the latter with Summer Teeth (Reprise)) each has further redefined the possibilities of this increasingly conservative branch of countrified rock and rockified country.

Both artists share considerable common ground, beginning with their respective pedigrees. Escovedo has been around since the late Seventies, playing with the Los Angeles punk group the Nuns, the seminal cowpunk outfit Rank and File, and the True Believers, a blazing live band from Austin that never managed to harness their energy in the studio despite two attempts during an ill-fated stint with EMI in the mid-Eighties. Tweedy, meanwhile, helped create the altcountry genre as a singer and songwriter with Uncle Tupelo, the group he and Jay Farrar formed in the late Eighties. They kept it together until 1994, when after four mostly brilliant albums, Farrar split to form Son Volt, leaving Tweedy to assemble Wilco. And with each album following their 1995 debut A.M., Wilco successfully broke free of the confines of neo-trad conservatism with the eclectic 1996 masterpiece, Being There, then paired up with Billy Bragg this past year for Mermaid Avenue, a critically acclaimed collection of previously unrecorded songs by the late Woody Guthrie.

At least part of the creative aesthetic Escovedo and Tweedy share is a determination to experiment within and beyond the realm of the altcountry boundaries. Escovedo did it with the incorporation of strings into his raunch-guitar wailers. Tweedy did it with his ability to pull together, and make his own, the disparate sounds from rock and pop history, from the obsessive studio diddlings of Todd Rundgren and Brian Wilson to the dissonant, fuzzball wallop of the Velvet Underground and Crazy Horse. What connects their work, though, is the almost insufferable sadness and melancholy that is shot through it, a poetic pinpointing of the pathos and tragedy of sleepless nights and broken hearts, of hope crumbling to dust, and love turning sour.

Which isn't to say their music is bereft of beauty. Bourbonitis Blues, Escovedo's fifth solo album, is a string-laden affair in which weeping violins and carefully stroked cellos are fused with scorching electric guitars, a throttling rhythm section, and layers of acoustic guitar. His explorations of the darkest corners of torment and angst are underpinned by the ache in his throaty, rough-hewn vocals, which are forceful but never forced, and ragged in all the right ways. And as with every album in his solo canon (Gravity, Thirteen Years, With These Hands, and More Miles Than Money, issued between 1992 and 1998), Escovedo proves he can do practically anything, and do it as well as anyone, from blazing power-chord assaults that reveal his love of the Stooges and the Stones to teary-eyed ballads that could turn George Jones into a sobbing shell of a man.

Always a sucker for a great song, and with an ear sharp enough to pick them out, Escovedo has peppered his solo albums and live shows with covers that run the gamut of his diverse tastes. Since his days in the True Believers, Escovedo has turned in definitive versions of AC/DC's "Highway to Hell," Mott the Hoople's "Walking with a Mountain," the Rolling Stones' "Sway," Lou Reed's "Street Hassle," and the Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog" and "Loose," among many others.

He has devoted more than half of the nine-track Bourbonitis Blues to covers, but rather than smacking of a loss of any original ideas, the songs he has assembled serve to complement the set's four originals. And they also provide some of the album's greatest moments. Ian Hunter's "Irene Wilde," a tale of scorned love and revenge featuring one of Escovedo's most gut-wrenching vocals, unfolds amid an intimate setting of acoustic guitars (via Escovedo and long-time sideman Joe Eddy Hines), Brian Standefer's cello, and David Perales's violin. The same group also turns in a convincing reading of John Cale's "Amsterdam," in which a lonely lover grapples with the happiness of his globetrotting ex. Mekons/Waco Brothers frontman Jon Langford takes the lead vocal on a loose-limbed romp through Jimmie Rodgers's "California Blues," while resurgent country chanteuse Kelly Hogan joins Escovedo in a sweetly mournful version of the Velvets' "Pale Blue Eyes." Meanwhile the Gun Club's postpunk howler "Sex Beat" is completely overhauled, with the original's frantic tempo and the late Jeffrey Lee Pierce's searing vocals discarded in favor of a languid tempo, dynamics laced with late-night atmosphere, and a creepy ambiance that's haunting and bone-chilling.  

As for his own offerings, Escovedo serves up an energetic throwaway ("Sacramento & Polk"); a throttling raver of self-loathing ("Everybody Loves Me"); and a slow, crunching version of "Guilty," first cut on 1995's With These Hands. It's the set-opening waltz "I Was Drunk," however, that summarizes everything Escovedo does best. Exhausted, confused, and bombed, he stumbles around his empty house, wracked with loneliness and despair, circling the bed he once shared with the girl who got away. The song builds slowly, first with acoustic guitar, then light flourishes of strings and percussion, and finally an explosion of controlled but chaotic noise, with Escovedo spitting out words as if they were poison, unable to get that awful, pathetic night out of his mind, knowing full well that another one just like it is waiting for him when the sun goes down and the bottle is open. It's a masterpiece of despair, the soundtrack for those nights when heartache is harder to shake than heroin.

Nothing on Wilco's Summer Teeth smacks you so firmly with the power of "I Was Drunk," but it's hardly a harmonious joy ride through the tunnel of love. This is, after all, an album with a song ("Via Chicago") featuring the opening couplet "I dreamed about killing you again last night/And it felt alright to me." Tweedy even finds the dark underbelly in the musically jubilant "I'm Always in Love," first bragging about it, then swooning, but finally confessing that it's worrying the hell out of him. Nevertheless as far back as his early contributions to the albums by Uncle Tupelo, Tweedy has always been able to find at least a shred of humor, however black it may be, in the complexities of love, lust, romance, and relationships. His earnest croak of a voice is both winsome and quintessentially sad: like the sound of a half-smile, an aural 180 from the despondent groan of his former bandmate Jay Farrar (who, with Son Volt, has been able to turn even a rollicking trucker's anthem like "Lookin' at the World Through a Windshield" into something grim).

Indeed Summer Teeth is a deceptively bright album, laced with musical in-jokes that reference the splendorous harmonies of the Beach Boys, the pulsating rhythms of the Velvet Underground circa White Light/White Heat, the jangly guitar-pop of the Raspberries, Todd Rundgren, and Big Star, and the panoply of sounds that made AM radio so much fun for a while back in the early Seventies. And as a band, Wilco can pull it all off with a kind of casual matter-of-factness that makes it easy to underrate the multifaceted abilities of guitarist Jay Bennett, or take for granted the ready-for-anything rhythm section of bassist John Stirratt and drummer Ken Coomer. And though everything on Summer Teeth is credited as a band effort, from the writing to the production, it's Tweedy's album. He dominates the set's sixteen tracks (two of which are hidden cuts, among them a second version of "I'm Always in Love"), using them to chronicle his passel of insecurities, fears, heartaches, anger, and the addlepated way he staggers through life and love, through happiness and loss. Along the way he has conceived Wilco's finest, most ambitious album to date.

The group's sound has come a long way from the strumming pop and crunch-guitar rock of A.M., and the bold musical steps made on Being There have become gigantic leaps on Summer Teeth. The lilting keyboards and faux strings add a touch of post-Pepper's Beatlemania to the yearning of "She's a Jar" and the gloriously catchy "Nothing'severgonnastandinmyway(again)," and ornate, crashing piano brings an almost orchestral grandeur to "A Shot in the Arm" and "Via Chicago." And if nothing here rocks with the careless, goofy abandon of Mermaid Avenue's "Hoodoo Voodoo," the herky-jerky "Can't Stand It" and the charging, twangy "ELT" come close enough.

But whether it's yielding an energetic basher or a doleful, tear-in-beer weeper, Summer Teeth ultimately is an album of almost sweeping despair. Like Escovedo in "I Was Drunk," Tweedy can't help but dwell on his failed affairs, his self-hatred, and the realities of life at its most disappointing and despondent. He sounds like a sobbing wretch on "We're Just Friends," barely able to get out the lines "If love's so easy, why is it hard?/I can't imagine being apart," and despite its title, "How to Fight Loneliness" tells you nothing of the kind, unless you believe smiling all the time will do the trick (and trust me, it won't). He confronts romantic jitters in "Pieholden Suite," romantic loss in "When You Wake Up Feeling Old" and "A Shot in the Arm," and his own romantic fuckups in "ELT," and concludes in "Can't Stand It" that love is too damn random, be it God's or his own, and that prayers of all kinds will never be answered.  

A lovely sentiment, for misanthropes and pessimists alike. But Tweedy refuses to succumb entirely to fatalism or cynicism, and the two bright spots on Summer Teeth rank among his most heartfelt and touching. "My Darling" is the kind of father-to-child lullaby that could make even the crustiest of loners consider the joys of parenting: "Grow up now, my darlin'/Please don't grow up too fast/And be sure, darlin'/to make all the good times last." And though he spends the bulk of Summer Teeth watching love disappear, in "Nothing'severgonnastandinmyway(again)," Tweedy can't squelch his romantic heart: "We'll find a way regardless/To make some sense of this mess/Well it's a test but I believe/A kiss is all we need." With the drums pounding behind him, and a sea of strings and acoustic guitars and ooh-aah vocals surrounding him, you have to believe he's right.

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