Wednesday, January 20, 2010

On the Albums of Uncle Tupelo, pt. 3: March 16-20, 1992 and Anodyne

March 16-20, 1992
August 3, 1992


Why It Might Be Tupelo's Best Album: The 'rock band goes acoustic' album smacks of marketing-centric gimmickry (exceptions, of course, are some select Unplugged performances, with which no one can argue.) But with the rise of grunge, and the logical public corralling of Tupelo into the grunge movement (abetted by their tepid relationship with their record label), the boys ducked the fad altogether and swam upstream: they made a folk record. Uncle Tupelo's decision to unplug for March 16-20, 1992 worked mainly because they didn't approach it as a rock record. It was a full manifestation of their folky nods in works past like "No Depression" and "Watch Me Fall". Aside from Dylanesque opener "Grindstone", we hear barren folk songs and traditional ballads. Farrar's (in my opinion) unmatched take on "Moonshiner" is one of the band's finest moments:



Farrar also delivers with reflective tunes like miner-ballad "Shaky Ground" and closer "Wipe the Clock". Jeff Tweedy continued to refine his songwriting style, contributing two brooding classics in "Black Eye" and "Fatal Wound". The instrumental "Sandusky" (which was featured in Jud Apatow's Knocked Up) is a breezy ramble with a great riff. The best thing I can say about the album is that it never feels like a gimmick. Well, almost never (see below.) You don't pine for the electric bashing of its predecessors. March 16-20, 1992 doesn't sound like a departure; it's every bit as representative of what Uncle Tupelo was as any of their albums.

Why It Might Not: The inclusion of "Coalminers" was a bit, I don't know, hokey? Jay sometimes insists on injecting straightforward history lessons in his music (see also "Sultana" from last Son Volt's American Dust). It's an interesting song, but a bit superfluous vis-a-vis the aforementioned "Shaky Ground", Farrar's original take on the hard life of a coal miner which is much more gracefully presented. Aside from that, there isn't much to complain about. Still, and virtually in contrast to what I wrote earlier, it's hard to think of Tupelo without the raging power chords and Heidorn's frantic drumwork. Within the context of their discography, March 16-20, 1992 was a brilliant conceptual decision, one that didn't suffer for its unique approach. But would deeming it Tupelo's best album be a proxy for judging their electric work? Surely that would be somewhat of a logical fallacy; I suppose I wish there was some sort of middle ground...

Anodyne
October 5, 1993


Why It Might Be Tupelo's Best Album: Not unlike Yankee Hotel Foxtrot some years later, Anodyne's legend is borne out of both the music and its backstory. At this stage, Farrar was ready to walk. There was a great deal of fluctuation in the band at this point: New label, new drummer, expanded roster. John Stirratt (who's still in Wilco) took on bass playing duties, allowing Tweedy a full-time move to guitar. Whatever the reason, the relationship between the two had fizzled. As I said, it's hard to imagine one band sustaining those two egos as long as it did. Soon after the release of Anodyne and the ensuing tour, the band was kaput. But as we learned with Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, tension often breeds inspired work, and such was the case with Anodyne.

Who knows what Farrar's lyrics are really about, but man do his two tracks that bookend the album sound squarely directed at Tweedy. A fiddle hums over a heavily strummed twelve-string in "Slate", with lyrics that suggest a relationship that's overstayed it's welcome:
"Worn out joke to keep the flies away,
carried it this far."
-"Slate"


And the chorus of "Steal the Crumbs" leaves little to the imagination of those trying to make the puzzle pieces fit:
"No more, no more will I see you,
no more will I see you."
-"Steal the Crumbs"
If Farrar was feeling protective of his role, he certainly made a greater case than ever for still being a songwriting force. Including from the aforementioned pair, his contributions are all four and five star efforts, most notably the vintage Tupelo rocker "Chickamauga" and the shuffling "Fifteen Keys". Tweedy's lyrics weren't so biting as Farrar's, although he did take a bite out of pop-punk and grunge rock with "We've Been Had." And "The Long Cut" could also be viewed through the lens of the state of Tupelo. But his more light-hearted tunes win the day. "New Madrid" is one of my personal favorites, a bounding acoustic diddy about an erroneous end-of-days theory, oddly enough. And "Acuff-Rose"--a knee-slapping fiddle fest that leads you to believe a ho-down could break out at any minute--is still played by Tweedy to this day.



The album is so emotionally rich, wrought with both sorrow and joy, and created by a band that literally had no notes left to play. The album's title is so fitting, too: An anodyne is essentially a painkiller, and metaphorically refers to words meant for healing purposes. The music on the album--more poignant and mature than anything they'd offered to date--might have afforded them both some sort closure, or at least enough to close the book on Uncle Tupelo.

Why It Might Not: Tweedy's only average contribution was "No Sense In Lovin'", which may or may not have had any involvement from Farrar (this is just speculation, but he sure doesn't seem to provide any backing vocals.) The song doesn't leap off the record like most others do, sounding more like a b-side from Wilco's A.M. than it does the penultimate track on a classic album. The only other chink in Anodyne's armor is its lack of Mike Heidorn's contributions. While the skins were more than ably supplied by future Wilco/Gourds drummer Ken Coomer, it strikes me that Tupelo at its purest was the trio of Farrar/Tweedy/Heidorn that rampaged through No Depression and Still Feel Gone. The same philosophical question arises as did with March 16-20, 1992: If the overall quality of music doesn't suffer, does it matter? To some degree it does. If either Tweedy or Farrar had left the band, it wouldn't be Tupelo (and it wasn't, since Wilco was essentially Anodyne-era Tupelo minus Farrar.) Mike Heidhorn brought his own style and attitude to the drum kit, as the drumwork on the first two albums was starkly different than the last two. Mirroring the point I made with March 16 as it relates to electric guitars: Is it fair to coronate Anodyne despite Heidorn's absence? It's a debate of whether his relevance outweighs the quality of music.

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