Wilco - Summerteeth (Deluxe Edition) Music Album Reviews

Wilco - Summerteeth (Deluxe Edition) Music Album Reviews
This reissue stays true to the darkness and exuberance that defined the band’s revelatory 1999 album. 

The late ’90s saw a widespread mutiny in the alt-country scene, as several mainstay acts dropped the twang to explore new sounds and styles, but no band went quite as far as Wilco did to shed their association with that movement. On Summerteeth, their third album, they embraced the Beach Boys, the Zombies, the Kinks, and Van Dyke Parks. Not just those sounds, but those ideas: They experimented in multiple studios, building the songs up with timpani and chimes, the ersatz strings of Jay Bennett’s Mellotron, the bleeps of ancient keyboards, even some back-masked vocals. It was another in a series of impressive transformations, after the band had already managed to grow out of alt-country also-ran status with 1996’s Being There.
On Summerteeth Jeff Tweedy and Wilco sound jumpier and nervier than they’d ever sounded before, as though they’ve been struck by lightning. There’s a sense of buoyancy and joy in the music, a sense of renewed mission in their engagement with a new set of influences and references—none of which has dimmed in the ensuing two decades. In fact, if Being There pondered the folly of playing in a midlevel rock and roll band, their follow-up is full of love songs to love songs. It’s not too wild a theory to suggest that the “you” Tweedy keeps singing to might actually be the music of the bands who influenced this record. “It’s for you I swoon,” he declares on “I’m Always in Love,” sounding like a man whose favorite song is whichever one is playing at the moment. Music is his shot in the arm. It’s what tells him every little thing’s gonna be alright. It’s the reason you undertake this foolish enterprise. Music is the other woman, the third point in a love triangle, and on some level that’s not even figurative: Tweedy knows he’s sacrificing time with his family—and security and stability and love and direction—to take these songs out on the road and show them off to people.

As exuberant as Summerteeth often sounds, it’s a dark and dire album—a missive from a man teetering on the edge of addiction and estrangement. After years on the road, Tweedy was trying to kick painkillers and largely failing, while Bennett was moving in the opposite direction and nurturing a new set of bad habits. That’s all compounded by Tweedy’s alienation from his wife and young sons; he describes a “fragile family tree” on “She’s a Jar” and laments his detachment from those he loves so much. “Watch me floating inches above the people under me.” To convey his disconnection, Tweedy took a new approach to songwriting, schooling himself in the works of experimental writers like Henry Miller and William H. Gass and tinkering with exquisite corpses and cut-and-paste techniques. Summerteeth is somehow both opaque and almost uncomfortably revealing: a tragically fragmented self-portrait.

After so many years and so many albums, that defining tension between the joy of music and the misery of the music business has only grown more poignant, perhaps because we’ve seen the committed dad rocker Tweedy has become, we’ve heard the music he’s made with his sons and their friends, and we’ve watched as he has established what you might call a family business. Summerteeth looms ominously in Wilco’s catalog, marking a point where he knows it all could have gone wrong. He now sounds like a man who understands pop music will save his life.

That quality makes the bonus material on this drinking-age-anniversary all the more potent. Let’s start with the scratchy demos, which could be Tweedy’s lost ‘90s lo-fi album, as though he was listening to nothing but Sebadoh and One Foot in the Grave. He sounds weirdly compelling in this stark setting, especially considering the direction these songs would take over time. There’s an unexpected loneliness to these songs in this state, as these same lyrics mean very different things without their billowing pop orchestrations. “All I Need” is a cough of a song, its delicate melody nearly ripped apart by his hoarse vocals, and this version of “I’ll Sing It” sounds intensely despairing even before you remember that he re-recorded the demo with his son Spencer Tweedy for 2014’s Sukierae. That makes the small flourishes more affecting, especially on “I’m Always in Love,” when someone—presumably his wife—sings dreamily along with him, perhaps offering comfort or just a reminder that he’s not alone in his musical madness.

It’s clear from these rough sketches that Wilco could have taken these songs in any direction—well, any direction but alt-country. The handful of early run-throughs and weird takes are all over the place, gesturing toward the large well of music from which they were drawing. With its breezily shifting keyboard chord and lazy snare tap, the “Slow Rhodes Version” of “Summer Teeth” sounds like ’70s yacht-soul, as Tweedy punctuates his vocals with a few shaky falsetto woo-hoo’s. One alternate take of “Nothing’severgonnastandinmyway (again)” recalls the unabashedly bouncy choruses of Tommy James & the Shondells, while the other sounds like their stab at a ’90s alt-pop radio hit. There’s also a strain of fuzzy punk running throughout these tracks, with the soundcheck recording of “We’re Just Friends” evoking a Midwestern Undertones and the non-album track “Viking Dan” sounding frayed and feral—more like the messy migraine noise rock of A Ghost Is Born than the tidy pop confections of Summerteeth.

Wilco sound like yet another completely different band on the live discs, which document a show in Boulder, Colorado, from November 1999. Away from the studio and up on the stage, Wilco are further refracted: sunny and light at one moment, heavy and crunchy at another. There’s an uncomfortable divide between the new songs and the old; Bennett’s Mellotron stands out even more than usual on the Summerteeth tracks, but it’s mostly absent on the older numbers. In fact, Wilco reverts back to familiar form as the show progresses, which is a shame, as it’d be fascinating to hear a song like “Casino Queen” or “Kingpin” dolled up in summer psychedelia. The standouts, oddly enough, might be the handful of tunes from Mermaid Avenue, released the year before. Tweedy did surprisingly well conveying Woody Guthrie’s warm sentimentality and goofy humor, and those virtues are even more pronounced in this setting. Wilco play “Hesitating Beauty” and “Hoodoo Voodoo” like they’re making them up on the spot, and they sound free and casual—refreshingly far from any dark thought.

When the crowd applauds a boisterous version of “Passenger Side,” Tweedy remarks, “If I wasn’t so heavily sedated, I would have been really aroused.” He’s going for a laugh, but it’s not even a joke. He makes several drug references, which he apparently intended to be charming, but his disorientation is alarming, especially when they invade the songs. On “Can’t Stand It,” he rewrites the lyrics so that “Our prayers will never be answered again” becomes “I swear, I’ll never eat acid again.” Such moments cast a pallor on an otherwise fine set, although that may be more representative of Wilco at this particular moment than anyone would like to admit. At the same time, it’s refreshing to get such a warts-and-all portrayal of a band hitting their stride even as they trip over their own shoelaces. In that regard, this reissue stays true to the spirit of the album, giving equal time to the delight as well as the despair.
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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

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Wilco - Summerteeth (Deluxe Edition) Music Album Reviews Wilco - Summerteeth (Deluxe Edition) Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Friday, November 13, 2020 Rating: 5

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