Uncle Tupelo – No Depression – Review

Uncle Tupelo

No Depression (Columbia/Legacy)
by Brian Varney

Like the Velvet Underground or the Stooges or Kyuss, bands whose influence post-mortem far exceeded their impact (sales or otherwise) during their lifetime, Uncle Tupelo was a simple case of too much too soon. Influential enough to have given name to an entire subgenre of bands (“No Depression,” the loose-knit genre of nu-country kiddies, was named after Tupelo’s first album, itself named after a Carter Family song), Uncle Tupelo broke ground before anyone cared about said soil. Breaking up in light of the band’s ultimate commercial failure, their recorded output doomed to the “straight from the bargain bin to $50 per copy on eBay idiocy” circuit that so many visionaries before them have suffered, Uncle Tupelo’s work is finally out of the hallowed, dusty halls of collector scumdom and back where it belongs, back in the bosom of the common man. Cheesy, I know, but it’s a sentiment that embraces the type of theme common in many of the band’s songs.

You probably know the band’s story by now. Two buddies, Jay Farrar (now in Son Volt) and Jeff Tweedy (now in Wilco), grew up punks, re-discovered their country roots, decided to combine the two, formed a band with some other guys whose names no one can remember, blah blah blah. No Depression, the band’s first album, showcases the band’s punk roots most obviously. Despite the subject matter and the acoustic guitars, there’s no mistaking the punk roots of something like “Graveyard Shift.” The country influence is not really an integral part of the band’s attack yet – when country shows up, it’s in something like the title track, which is set aside as the “country track,” where the electric guitars go away and hearts appear on sleeves. Even at this early date, they have a good grasp of country when they decide to step into that mode, but they have yet to find a common ground where their twin, seemingly disparate, influences can peacefully co-exist and feed from one another.

The band’s second album, Still Feel Gone, is their most straight-ahead rock album, and also the weakest of these three. The album has a feel not unlike the Beatles’ White Album in that it feels like the combined solo work of separate artists rather than the work of a true band. Jeff Tweedy’s songs are upbeat and rocky; opener “Gun” is pure indie rock, melodic and poppy and bearing no trace of having come from a band who would have any knowledge of The Carter Family. Contrast this with the track that follows it, Jay Farrar’s “Looking For a Way Out,” a slab of flannel-wearing roots rock with a heavy Neil Young flavor, and you begin to see the album’s polarity.

For the most part, the album sticks to these precedents – Tweedy’s material is bouncy, upbeat rock which bears no traces of country influence (there’s a song about D. Boon, ferchrissakes!) while Farrar’s material veers away from these paths in search of more downbeat terrain, folk and country influences the driving forces behind tracks like the standout “Still Be Around,” which pointed clearly to the band’s next album. And while this makes for some nice contrasts, it also gives the album an unfinished, thrown-together feel. I much prefer the band’s countrified material to their rock-oriented stuff, so a good half of this album is not much use to me. There is, however, some fine stuff to be had among the bonus tracks, most notably rare b-side “Sauget Wind” and a Soft Boys cover, “I Wanna Destroy You.”

March 16-20, 1992 is yet another about-face. Turning its back sharply on the rock influences that were the driving force of its predecessor, March 16-20, 1992 finds the band chucking its electric guitars and amps out in the street, settling down with nearly all-acoustic instrumentation and a handful of traditional folk and country covers along with some like-minded originals to make the darkest, most gripping music of their career. Understandably, this album was somewhat of a shock to fans upon release – how many other bands can you think of who go from writing a song about D. Boon to covers of fire-and-brimstone Louvin Brothers songs and trad-folk numbers with titles like “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down”?

Initial shock aside, this album is, to my ears, the finest of these three. It’s the first out-and-out shunning of the band’s punk roots, a banishment which would continue for the rest of the band’s career as well as, to this point, the members’ subsequent solo projects. While one would think it not entirely wise to turn your back on a big part of your musical past, it works wonders for Uncle Tupelo. For the first time, the band sounds like a cohesive unit, its two primary songwriters approaching the band’s output with a common goal. Perhaps because of this seemingly newfound harmony, Farrar and Tweedy have grown tremendously as songwriters. Fantastic originals, like “Shaky Ground” and the amazing “Moonshiner” (whose credits I had to check and re-check before I would indeed believe that it was not a long-lost traditional folk tune), sitting with an august dignity alongside carefully-chosen covers. Far and away the band’s most monochromatic output, March 16-20, 1992 will not appeal to fans who appreciate the rock/country duality of the first two releases. However, for those with a greater interest in the band’s country leanings or simply in hearing the band’s most soulful output, this is the place to start. Of the six bonus tracks included, the most noteworthy is a straight-faced country reading of Stooges classic “I Wanna Be Your Dog.”
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