Writer's Note: This was the second album review I ever wrote. It appeared in the Augustana Observer on March 26, 1999.
Wilco is one of those rare prolific bands that never seems to run out of quality material. From 1995 to 1999 the band released the equivalent of a record per year and always managed to show up on critics' end-of-the-year lists.
Wilco rose from the ashes of country rock darlings Uncle Tupelo. The group's two songwriters started rival bands, Jay Farrar formed Son Volt, Jeff Tweedy (and drummer Ken Croomer) formed Wilco. Both bands continued the roots rock sound of their former group, with a bit of twang and a debt owed to Neil Young.
Summerteeth, Wilco's fourth album, found the band sneaking away from the genre that defined them, showing barely a hint of twang. Instead of Hank Williams, it seems Tweedy was listening to the Beach Boys. The band still made singable songs with lyrics that are sweet ("When I forget how to talk I sing") and scary ("I dreamed about killing you again last night and it felt alright to me") but this is the album where they discovered the wonder of the studio. Much of country rock's appeal is based in the visceral experience of the live performance, but Wilco layers sounds like multi-tracking was just invented yesterday: guitars sigh, keyboards tumble, bells sway, birds chirp and horns jump.
The catchy choruses and high harmonies belie the sometimes hopeless lyrics. ELT boasts a rocking riff with the repeated warning: "Every little thing is gonna tear you apart". The plaintive How To Fight Loneliness begins with a pretty acoustic guitar and Tweedy's raspy voice telling us to "Smile all the time / Shine your teeth till meaningless / Sharpen them with lies."
Even so, observations of life's problems are tempered with messages of perseverance, and it's no more apparent than when Tweedy proclaims, "Nothing's ever gonna stand in my way again!"
Other highlights include the bonus track Candyfloss, which bops along like a lost '60s bubblegum hit, and I'm Always In Love, a peppy rumination on the contradictions of romance. If you think about it, Wilco themselves exemplify contradictions, quality and quantity, rootsy and poppy, depressed and hopeful.
Summerteeth stands in my mind as Wilco's best record, in a field with strong competition. It's an album for those who relish the art of song; for those who love to listen again and again and discover new surprises every time.
Fave Song: ELT