Tangents are wonderful things…
While reading the Morgan Taylor interview the other day, I noticed that he’d opened a lot of shows for Wilco. That made me pull out Being There and Summerteeth; both those records sound perfect when Spring is trying to shake off the doldrums and give you a warm day or two. and despite my town setting its all time record for rain during the month of April, birds and buds and ants are telling me that little liar groundhog’s ruse is almost over.
In other words, my review of Summerteeth from 1999 in…
When asked about his plans for Wilco after Being There had caught people off guard, Jeff Tweedy hinted that the band would most likely take another unexpected turn and create “a twisted pop record“. Let it never be said that Tweedy is not a man of his word.
Once again self-produced by the band (Tweedy, Jay Bennett, John Stirratt and Ken Coomer), Summerteeth thrives on the juxtaposition of introspective, sometimes dense, lyrical wordplay fleshed out in a rainbow of musical style. There are several songs that will immediately strike the listener as upbeat, sing-along melodies, yet underneath lurk images of loneliness, confusion and unfulfilled dreams.
“Candyfloss” jumps out of the speakers with a bouncy, 60s pop calliope beat, yet Tweedy’s confessional says otherwise: “I’m the boy who looks excited/I’m the boy who’se gonna fall apart…I’m the boy who eats his heart out…” . Likewise, the opener, “Can’t Stand It” is a groove rocker but boasts a chorus that states “our dreams will never be answered again“.
“Via Chicago” is one of the few that matches sonic pulse with lyrical imagery. Slow and deliberate, the opening line is as disturbing as the distorted, feedback-laden guitar solo that cradles the fade-out: “Dreamed about killing you again last night / and it felt all right to me…”. Then – just as your heart and brain are splattered across the floor – “ELT (Every Little Thing)” rockets out of the speakers like the hit single it should be, a cousin to Bowie’s “Heroes” filtered through The Byrds. It’s another song of lost opportunity or maybe Fate’s warning, but which? Hopeful or hopeless? Tweedy’s deft pen leaves that open to your imagination, and depending upon your mood, it will be either.
Video: “ELT (Every Little Thing)”
The title track, like “Candyfloss” and “ELT“, will no doubt pump out of radios all summer long. No matter that the subject is denial about the rut that his life has become; the infectious refrain will have you singing along with the “ooh-ahh” background vocals (with lilting keyboards and chirping birds, no less) and have you daydreaming as well. “My Darling” and the stark “We’re Just Friends” echo Big Star circa Sister Lovers with a little Brian Wilson harmony thrown in, while “You Wake Up Feeling Old” is ironically finger-snapping pop.
The band must have gathered up every instrument in the studio and then some – bells, bird chirps, penny whistles, shakers, flutes, horns and tympani are sparingly but creatively used throughout the record. And as he promised, Tweedy has stripped down the band and reconstructed its direction, a move that will probably alienate some diehard Uncle Tupelo purists (assuming they aren’t already pissed off) but should thrill anyone with an open mind and a respect for the art of songwriting. Summerteeth is funky, soulful, rocking, heartbreaking, pensive and explosive – in short, a masterpiece.
Listen to clips here