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An Appreciation of Wilco's A.M.

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Wilco w/ Portastatic
Wed. March 8
8 p.m.
$29.50
N. Charleston Performing Arts Center
5001 Coliseum Dr.
529-5050
www.coliseumpac.com

It's 2006. Pop music, even the stuff with guitars and drums, isn't going away. And yet, music lovers continue to split into increasingly arcane special interest groups. SoulSeek and MP3 blogs draw us ever more seductively into our musical caverns of choice. Unless this Arctic Monkeys record is as good as NME thinks it is, there's no Great Band like the Stones, no unifying force like Springsteen. But we're bolder about creating our own obscure playlists, less inclined to await consensus, more attuned to the overwhelming variety of stuff that's out there. Maybe we don't need Great Bands anymore.

Despite the critical overreaction to its every move, Wilco have approximately zip in the way of Great Band potential. Wilco never deserved to be treated like Radiohead. Hell, Radiohead never deserved to be treated like Radiohead. Wilco made an album with some weird ambient beeswax buffering the segueways between its dry, melancholy, prosaic pop songs. Reprise, a Warner subsidiary, declined to release it, lending it immense online cachet. Eventually, Nonesuch, another Warner subsidiary, discharged the album in late 2001. Sales were decent. Critics kowtowed to the point of masochism. From then on, a lot of people insisted on treating Wilco like a Great Band with Important Things to say about Society, forgetting that, if Jeff Tweedy knew anything about 9-11 while recording Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, he belonged in jail.

A fun band put out a puffy, stilted record, got a lot of attention for it, and stopped being fun. Whether the newer albums are "good" depends on whether or not you like them — if you like them, good for you. But Wilco was never Great and, in 2006, you'd be in a spot if you tried to name one fun thing about them.

In 1995, Wilco had so much fun that no one took them seriously. When Jeff Tweedy recorded A.M., he was fresh off the bitter implosion of Uncle Tupelo, his old band, formed in '87 in Belleville, Ill. Some critics now credit Uncle Tupelo with inventing "alternative country," a mix of '80s college rock and certain Appalachian tropes dating back to the Great Depression. Compared to actual Nashville country, alternative country has approximately zip to say to the average Southeastern Wal-Mart employee, and thus never took off in the actual country. Nevertheless, in the big cities and in well-read journals, Uncle Tupleo was taken seriously enough to have an effing magazine named after it. De facto leader Jay Farrar killed Uncle Tupelo when he unexpectedly left. He carried the alt-country torch on Trace, the rich and unbelievably sad debut from his then-new band Son Volt. Meanwhile, Tweedy (who scrambled for whatever creative input he got in Uncle Tupelo) formed Wilco and released A.M.

Now there was a fun record. From the shuffling pop of "I Must Be High" through the Stonesy swagger of "Casino Queen," the goofy bluegrass fusion of "That's Not the Issue," the sublime, bleary-eyed ballads "Should've Been In Love," and "Thought I Held You," A.M. showcased Tweedy's remarkable range without once taking itself seriously. The loveably unreliable narrator, Tweedy's erstwhile persona, takes its most memorable turn on "Passenger's Side," a Westerbergian ode to the horrors of sobriety-by-proxy. Hearing A.M. now feels like rediscovering a solid, affable group that, through no fault of its own, never went anywhere.

The art of A.M. is a populist art, an art diminished by the piercing light of Importance. For the record, I don't believe we should begrudge Tweedy and Wilco their riches and their fame. But had they not gotten Important, A.M. would be one of those fantastic, overlooked '90s rock albums you could buy used for next to nothing. And maybe it would be more fun if it were. Not to discount Tweedy's supposed post-YHF "recovery," but 2002's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and its limp 2004 follow-up A Ghost Is Born, sound like heavy drug albums. By contrast, A.M. sounds like a beer album. And people who love beer albums could use a little leftover scratch.

Tweedy and the current lineup (guitarist Nels Cline, guitarist/keyboardist Pat Sansone, keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen, drummer Glenn Kotche and bassist John Stirratt, the only original member save JT himself), released Kicking Television: Live In Chicago, late last year. Twenty-three tracks deep, it's a good overview of Wilco's more recent, more cerebral material, in case you'd prefer to develop your own debatable theories.

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