Wilcoast to Coast: Summerteeth

This took so long, maybe this post about Wilco’s excellent third album should be called Autumnteeth.

Anyway, below is prattling about Summerteeth in the form of the third installment of Wilcoast to Coast–an aimless conversation between my friend Jimi, something of a Wilco expert, and myself, a guy who has heard every Wilco album and has loosely formed but entirely too strong opinions.

Jimi: After branching out with the expansive, uneven Being There, Wilco found themselves in a strange place: they were a critically respected, modestly successful alt-country group for the first time. Where would they go after a double album? They were gifted with an answer in the form of Billy Bragg tapping them for support Mermaid Avenue, a project that found them supplying music for previously unrecorded Woody Guthrie songs. This project helped establish them as one of the most buzzed-about bands in America.

Picking up after recording sessions in Willie Nelson’s studio that produced several demos, Jeff Tweedy and Co. moved back to Chicago and experimented with recording the songs live and adding overdubs using Protools. This approach caused much friction within the group: drummer Ken Coomer and bassist John Stiratt found their roles in the group minimized as Tweedy and multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett began abusing painkillers and producing the album themselves.

It’s easy to see Bennett and Tweedy both growing musically on the album. Bennett’s perfectionist tendencies turn the songs into mini-masterpieces of power pop, while Tweedy’s lyrics bring introspection and ugly feelings (inspired by literature, his own feelings of isolation, and his relationship with his wife) into the mix. The result? An album that was hailed as a masterpiece, while underperforming commercially, even with a radio-friendly edit of lead-off track “Can’t Stand It” that the band’s label tried to turn into a hit.

As perhaps hinted above, I consider Summerteeth to be one of Wilco’s best albums. How do you feel about the album? And do you think the friction within the band was essential to the album?

Ben: I absolutely love Summerteeth. It’s my second favorite Wilco album, and it would probably be most other band’s signature work.

The influence of Bennett is definitely extremely important, and I think the overdubbing and perfectionism yield results more sonically interesting than the band’s previous work.

I’m always a believer in the idea genius flourishes with constraints and slight dilution. It’s why I think Kanye West is an incredibly savvy musician to create via think-tank. He fills his recording sessions with experts and experienced professionals. He works concepts and bounces ideas until he’s satisfied, but the work isn’t produced by one fevered brain. The hired hands are brought about to push a vision, and it all works.

Granted, Tweedy was not imposing mandatory formal attire and financing a Hawaii retreat, but some conflict, surrounding oneself with talented contributors, rather than yes-men and chasing a vision rendered impossible by the comprehensive nature of collaboration worked out great for Kanye and Brian Wilson.

This album doesn’t reach those dizzying heights of complex production, but it’s definitely a more complex sound and one I think ultimately fit Wilco like a glove.

That was my roundabout way of saying friction and different points of view were definitely a critical component of this album.

If I were to recommend a single album that best distills Wilco’s sound, it would probably be this one. It isn’t their masterpiece, but it might be the best representation of what this band is, and it was the first glimpse of Wilco operating at its highest(ha! get it?!? level.

Jimi: This is definitely a great place for Wilco beginners to start. It incorporates a more experimental sound into their work that was only hinted at before. It makes for an album that, paradoxically, doesn’t try so hard as their first two albums but succeeds more often than either A.M. or Being There. The album’s first half, composed mainly of power pop, gets an extra kick from the neo-soul flourishes that Wilco started using for the first time here (see the bells on “Can’t Stand It”).

It’s in the album’s more difficult second half that the album declares its classic status. “Pieholden Suite”  is classic Brian Wilson-style country piece, the title track has a breezy charm that belies the lyrics’ sublime portrait of loneliness, and “My Darling” is a sweet soul piece for Tweedy’s newborn son. The true standout is “Via Chicago,” probably one of Wilco’s three best songs. Beginning with an utterly chilling line (“I dreamed about killing you again last night/And it felt alright to me”), the song evolves into haunting Dylanesque lyricism and a noisy breakdown mirroring the character’s exhaustion and confusion. That haunting opening line evolves, by the end, into a badge of the character’s failure instead of his hatred: he’s been so beaten down by life that he would rather kill the woman he loved than have her watch him lose again.

Ben: The important question is: who wrote the better jar metaphor song, Wilco or Dinosaur Jr.?

Jimi: Well, while I worship at the altar of J. Macsis (as every self-respecting music lover should), I’m calling it for Wilco. Dinosaur Jr.’s song is a perfect piece of indie power pop, but “She’s A Jar” is such a weird, dark song. I mean, it has a haunting melody, perhaps the best harmonica solo of the past three decades, and some of Tweedy’s most Dylanesque lyrics.

Speaking of tracks that call to mind other artists, what do you make of Tweedy’s rewrite of “After the Gold Rush”? Is it just him paying homage to a favorite artist, or can you see some parallels between Young’s elegy for the failed idealism of the sixties and Tweedy’s tale of a murderous lover?

Ben: Probably both.

The parelells are easy to draw between a murderous lover and Baby Boomers killing the laudable if impractical ideals that led to the original summer of love.

Also, Tweedy obviously loves some Neil Young.

It’s interesting we’re discussing so many other artists, because to me this album is absolutely the mark of the sound that defines Wilco for me.

You tend to have a better idea about these things than me, what influence and events created the lightly experimental, breezy power pop on this album?

Also, has an album touching on domestic abuse and intravenous drug use ever been this pleasant?

Jimi: Well, I’m not quite sure what lead to the lightly experimental, breezy  power pop on this album, though if I had to take a stab in the dark, I would have to guess it’s the increased prominence of Jay Bennett. He was definitely the maddening perfectionist of the band (the chimes added to “Can’t Stand It,” while requested by the record company, have Bennett written all over them), plus the guy’s got an obvious love of pop-in-disguise post-punk. His first band (Titanic Love Affair) was named after a Billy Bragg line (and Bragg, despite his sparse instrumentation and far-left politics, certainly had a way with a hook) and his posthumous album was named after a line from a Boomtown Rats song (speaking of which, you could argue that The Fine Art of Surfacing is just as successful at marrying dark lyrics to big hooks).

Another theory I have on the subject is that this was the album Tweedy and Bennett wanted to make all along. Now they could afford to do so. The label (which, at this point, was endlessly supportive of Wilco) was itching for a hit from a band they believed could deliver one and gave them increased resources, including ProTools, which was responsible for the large amounts of overdubs on the album. This also meant that Bennett and Tweedy could record much of the album themselves.

Overall, the album has a purity of vision and a sense of direction Wilco’s previous albums didn’t. The influences are still there (the Beatles, the Band, Neil Young, Brian Wilson), but they make the familiar feel fresh.

Ben: I’m not sure if he’s a fan, but there’s an element of Flying Burrito Brothers in there too.

Bennett and Tweedy as Hillman and Parsons, making Americana music just a little weirder and more honest.

Do you think Wilco would still be releasing quality music if they started 15 years later?

Could you imagine a record label supporting a band through two relative flops, then doubling down on Album No. 3 in the modern music industry?
And of course, which songs are contenders to crack your 20?

Jimi: Well, honestly, it’s become simultaneously easier and more difficult for labels to keep artists like Wilco on their labels. On the one hand, if a band like Wilco were to flop commercially the first time, they probably would not be able to secure the major funding for a second or third “breakthrough” attempt. On the other hand, labels are much smarter about promoting bands like Wilco. It seems to be almost common knowledge now that a band takes 2-4 albums to really hit their stride. For instance, it wasn’t until the National started getting great reviews with Alligator that the label began promoting them more. And there’s the legendary story about how Merge was completely unprepared for Arcade Fire’s first album to sell as well as it did and responded by basically giving them anything they wanted for their second album.

I’m not sure if Wilco would still be as successful if they had existed 15 years earlier. A big part of the band’s success was using new studio techniques to enliven old, seemingly played-out genres. Without the sense of timing, they would probably be seen as a country-tinged alternative to The Replacements (instead of “an American Radiohead” [I plan on making at least one Radiohead reference in each entry of this series]).

In terms of songs that would qualify for my 20, “Via Chicago” has a guaranteed spot. “A Shot in the Arm” would probably be guaranteed a spot as well. “She’s A Jar” has some of Tweedy’s best lyrics. One song that would probably be on my personal 20 that probably wouldn’t be on anyone else’s is “I’m Always In Love,” a pounding jolt of pure joy that may curiously be one of Wilco’s most popular songs due to its use in an HTC commercial.

I know we’re both salivating to start on album No. 4, so let me ask you what songs go on your personal 20? Any final remarks on Summerteeth?

Ben: I realize I keep picking a handful of songs from every album, which does not bode well for actually producing only 20 Wilco songs.

With that being said, “Shot in the Arm” is awesome, although I slightly prefer the production of alternative mix. It sounds a little warmer to me with the guitar further up in the mix. I like the  charge of a hard strummed guitar replacing some of the swelling springs and the experimental blips and bloops are a bit more evident.

The album mix is prettier, but the alt. take just works for me a little bit better.

I like “I’m Always in Love” an awful lot, but a scant two albums ago, Tweedy sang “Should’ve Been in Love” I mean, make up your mind, Jeff.

Kidding aside, it’s sweetly sentimental and piercing screechy sounds keep time, which is all I could want from a Wilco song.

My off the radar pick, “We’re Just Friends” is enjoyably acerbic in its melancholy, which is always a frequency that resonates with me. Plus, I’ve always thought the song’s harmony, which occasionally seems to swell toward something before flattening back out matches the lyrical theme in a perfect way.

So, put me down for “Shot in the Arm (Remix)”, “We’re Just Friends” and “I’m Always in Love”

Both A.M. and Being There are both good-to-great albums, but honestly, this is the album I would suggest to someone looking to get into Wilco.

Until Television-lite guitars pop up a few more albums down the line, I would say this was really the last major evolutionary step Wilco took.

As you implied, I am ecstatic to move on to Wilco’s fourth album, because (controversial opinion alert) I think it’s at least kind of good. I mean it’s no Jefferson Starship, but it’s held up surprisingly well during the last decade or so.

Editor’s Note: We’ll see if we can knock out Yankee Foxtrot Hotel in fewer than three months.  

Author: Ben Hohenstatt

I was born April 7, 1992. I'm a reporter in Alaska, and an alum of Auburn University. I am an avid fan of music, Chicago sports teams and pop culture in general.

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