Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The 10 Best Non-Wilco Jeff Tweedy Songs

As I type this, the curtains in my front windows are swinging softly in the breeze. What's problematic about this is that it's currently below zero here in Chicago and my windows are sealed tight. Unfortunately, that gentle sway is here to remind that my apartment's shitty single-pane windows are no match for the arctic vortices that, along with a seemingly-constant snowfall have defined this winter. But unlike everyone else in the goddamn country, I'm not complaining about winter being cold. I'm a well-documented fan of winter and I view this year's as more of a corrective to the watered-down global warming winters we've had of late.

I've found that I often use the winter to circle back to old passions of mine -

books, movies and, of course, bands that I used to OBSESS over but maybe hadn't thought of much in recent months or years. There's something about the cold and darkness, the silence and gorgeous-end-of-the-world feeling about a deep, snowy winter that brings me back to my roots and this winter that's meant listening to a lot of Jeff Tweedy.

Having been writing songs for nearly a 25 years, I don't think it's premature or out-of-line to say that Tweedy's proven himself to be part of line of great American songwriters that runs through greats like Cohen, Young, Newman or Dylan. He's always managed to balance his raucous D.I.Y. background, inveterate exploratory yen and love of classic American forms to produce songs that sound like instant classics without ever being too dated.

As I plowed through his impressive catalog, I decided that I wanted to take the time to highlight some of his music that your casual twentysomething Wilco fan might not have stumbled across. After starting with an all-time favorite cover of mine, I'm moving into lists, starting today. Thus I present you with a 10 of great songs written by Jeff Tweedy for his many side projects, super-groups and other bands that aren't Wilco.

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10.  What Could Have Been - 7 Worlds Collide  Buy Sun Came Out
In late 2008, former Split Enz frontman Neil Finn got a bunch of musicians from Wilco and Radiohead along with Johnny Marr, KT Turnstall and others to spend three weeks banging out a charity album. The result was a bit scattershot but it did contain a few nuggets from Jeff Tweedy, including "What Could Have Been". At it's root, it's an acoustic number but it features a the kind of minimal electronic embellishments reminiscent of the experimentation documented in the songs featured with The Wilco Book. He is haunted by the errors of his past, dreaming of being able to go back and fix them. At the same time, while wondering what could have been, he's also trapped by the knowledge that those mistakes also brought him to where he is. A tossed-off gem that shows just how deep Tweedy's catalog runs.
After putting Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to bed in 2001, Wilco started paling around with Scott McCaughey and Peter Buck from R.E.M. and eventually ended up serving as their back-up band for their side-project, the Minus 5. Although the band mostly just stayed in the background, crafting psychedlic song beds straight out of the late '60s, Tweedy did co-write a couple of songs for the project, including this gem, "The Family Gardener". A soft acoustic number, Tweedy paints a pastoral scene straight out of the American song book, mixing the ideas of cultivation between plants and family. A sweet, wistful look at time passing and small-town life, this is one of the prettier Tweedy efforts, even if it's not the most substantial.
Comprised of members of the Jayhawks, Soul Asylum and even Big Star, Golden Smog was a supergroup that gave Tweedy an avenue to release all the pressure he started feel about being Wilco's sole songwriter around the time of Being There and Summerteeth. Tweedy has a long history of singing about the power of music and it's effect on fans. In many ways, "I Can't Keep From Talking" is the flip side of Being There's "The Lonely 1". Whereas that was a positively blubbery country ballad about the isolation felt by both fan and performer, who remain connected by a love of music. This song, on the other hand, is more a celebration of that connection. The first verse, sung from the fan's perspective starts with the line "hey, ain't great for us to be alive" and goes on from there, expounding on his love of music. Though the second verse can be read as a much darker response from the musician, the song itself remains upbeat and committed to the idea of music and the power it contains.
Dark times always make for fertile ground for protest singers and the Bush years were no exception. Although Jeff Tweedy was never a "rah-rah" protest singer, he was well-steeped in both the folk and punk traditions. Using a few tricks he picked up from his time singing Woody Guthrie songs, he penned one of the sharpest satires of the decade with "The Ruling Class". Featuring a plaintive whistle for a hook, the song is a breezy, searing indictment at the corruption of religion by politics and vice-versa. Tweedy sings about a ressurected Christ who's less interested in poor and meek and more on-board with the whole neo-con thing. "He's got deductions up and down the line," Tweedy proclaims, "dependent claims on all of mankind." It's the perfect send-up of the only kind of perverted Christianity that could have actually jibed with the interpretation that many so-called religious leaders were trying to shove down America's throat in the middle of last decade.
The spiritual precursor to "The Family Gardener", "Please Tell My Brother" was released in 1998 on Golden Smog's Weird Tales. The most skeletal of songs, it reads like a peak at Jeff Tweedy's personal therapy sessions at the time. He sings about reconnecting with everyone in his family despite, time, distance, etc. It's the kind of Americana that no one bothers to make any more, which makes it ring all the louder. Tweedy wishes he could tell everyone in his family how much they mean to him and yet you feel like he's writing this song instead. He knows he won't call his brothers, will miss his sister and her kids and wants his father to know it's OK to kick back with a cold one after a lifetime of working on behalf of others. He even talks about his deceased mother (a rarity in the Tweedy catalog) and how he "feel[s] her ghost" with him. Whatever "Please Tell My Brother" lacks in complexity, it more than makes up for in heart. This is a song expressing the tension and longing that the 21st century family imposes with a succinctness and honesty that cuts right through a listener's defenses. 
5. Acuff-Rose - Uncle Tupelo  Buy Anodyne
Ah, Uncle Tupleo; Jeff Tweedy's band before Wilco, founders of the "No Depression" alt-country movement, Midwestern punk icons. Although the band started out with Jay Farrar clearly in the driver's seat and Jeff Tweedy as the junior partner, by the time their last album, 1992's Anodyne, came out it was clear that they were at least songwriting equals. The second song on that album, "Acuff-Rose", is a tribute to a classic country publishing house that not only hosted some of Americana's greatest songs but was also a renowned friend and fair partner to the artist. Tweedy's song mostly pay homage to a world where people could be united in something as simple and universal as a song by Acuff-Rose. The song is an evocation of warmth, familiarity and safety, invoking images "children in the playground / folks in the home" to evoke the sense of contentedness that certain songs can provide. Tweedy's hard-strumming has made the song an un-amplified fan favorite despite lacking the original's flying fiddles.
4. Laminated Cat - Loose Fur  Buy Loose Fur
The song of a thousand incarnations (or at least a half-dozen), "Laminated Cat" started off during the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot sessions as a Springsteenian rocker entitled "Not For The Season". Although it didn't make it onto that album, Jeff Tweedy kept playing it at solo acoustic gigs and it eventually became a droning experimental number on the first Loose Fur album he released with Jim O'Rourke and Glen Kotche. As its original title suggests, the song finds Tweedy working through a year's worth of seasons, from sunshine of summer to the dark, prowling dread of winter. It's a rumination on the passage of time and cyclical nature of life, wrapped in an intensely melodic package, no matter what iteration you listen to. In later years he's performed it solo with Kotche backing him on drums and, since this is my personal favorite, it is the version I present below.
3. Wait Up - Uncle Tupelo  Buy March 16-20,1992
Uncle Tupelo's third album, March 16-20 1992, was recorded with R.E.M.'s Peter Buck and saw the band zigging when everyone else zagged. Just as Nirvana helped punk break, Jeff and co. traded their axes for acoustic guitars and banjos for a breathtaking album of bare-bones folk songs. Arguably the finest spot on the album, "Wait Up" is a spare, haunting love song featuring some of the most emotionally vulnerable lyrics of Tweedy's career. Over plaintive banjo he pleads for his love to just wait up for him. Tweedy's is so heavy with emotion you can practically feel the ache in the back of your own throat. The way he drags out key lines such as "I miss... more than... I need sleep" makes the song feel even more nakedly emotional, as if the words were being dragged from him. After these moments the acoustic guitars fade out, a soft wash distortion backs a single banjo and the song hangs, painfully suspended in midair for just a few seconds. Then, as the confession fades and the tension becomes almost unbearable, everything falls back into place and things continue as they were before. 
One of Jeff Tweedy's many songwriting skills is his ability to craft melodies that sound immediately timeless and nowhere is that more in evidence than on "Radio King". The song's opening guitar run has a lazy finger-picked charm that Llewyn Davis would say sounds like "it was new but it never gets old". Fittingly, this is a bit of unrepentant escapist nostalgia. "Let's go out together, 3am tomorrow night" Tweedy sings, in a way that conjures up a childhood friend knocking on your bedroom, beckoning you on to an evening of illicit fun. But, as so often, Tweedy is singing here about music, to an old musician. "Your music fills my car / your voice breaks every time" he reminisces, admitting "I hang on every line". Youth, freedom, music, radio are the song's currency. Although they combine to paint a picture of a long-ago America that seems just a little too perfect to have actually existed, it's the kind of wonderful delusion we should all allow ourselves every once in a while. "Radio King" is three minutes and ten seconds of escape to a time that we all deserve to be able to recall.
1. Gun - Uncle Tupelo   Buy Still Feel Gone
Although the Uncle Tupelo's alt-country insurgency went by the name of the band's first album, No Depression, it was really their second record that perfected the punk/country blend. Leading off Still Feel Gone was Jeff Tweedy's absurdly anthemic chestnut, "Gun". The song was once described by Pitchfork's William Bowers a "[a synthesis of] the entirety of the Replacements Tim" and it's hard to argue with that assessment. It starts with the rumble of guitars that build like rolling thunder before finally crashing down with spectacular clarity. "Falling out the window" Tweedy cries, setting the stage for the song's "dreams unfulfilled" motif that most of the song sticks to. The only respite from this is the sighing admission repeated at the end of each verse. "My heart / it was a gun / but it's unloaded now / so don't bother" it's this mixture of beaten-down cynicism cut with just a touch of openhearted romanticism that Tweedy pinched from Paul Westerberg and spun into gold of his own. Wrapped in a hard-hitting shell, "Gun", packs an emotional wallop strong enough to resonant just as loudly as it did nearly a quarter-century ago.

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