(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Recording review - Uncle Tupelo, No Depression (Legacy Edition, 2014)

Spawning a genre and mining musical truth

It’s a bittersweet pleasure to listen to Uncle Tupelo’s debut album No Depression with 24 years of hindsight. You can hear the band discovering themselves and developing their sound. It’s a snapshot from before the rancor set in. Their label, Rockville Records, hadn’t screwed them yet and the power struggle between Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy still lay ahead. Even though the acrimony and split would lead to Farrar’s Son Volt and Tweedy’s Wilco, each of which have made some great music, it’s painful to listen to the band bare themselves in these raw songs and think of what would follow. Their simple sincerity and naïveté made this big impact that the band itself could not outlast and their debut remains fresh and relevant. No Depression captures the beginning of a groundswell that had its roots in the cow punk sounds of X, the Blasters and the Beat Farmers. Tempered by firmer leanings toward folk rock and country, this album has been largely credited with spawning a new genre that never came up with a good enough name; alt-country, Americana or the eponymous “No Depression” have all sat in as labels, but none quite satisfy. Less than a name, it all comes down to the music and attitude.

This is not the first time the album has been reissued. In 2003, after the band had recovered their rights to their albums from Rockville, Uncle Tupelo re-released them with Columbia/Sony Legacy. The 2003 version tacked on some covers and alternate recordings along with liner notes from drummer Mike Heidorn. This Legacy Edition is geared for the completest fan. It includes two CDs loaded with 35 tracks. In addition to all of the songs on the last reissue, it includes the full set of songs from their 1989 demo, Not Forever, Just for Now, along with several songs from their 1987 cassette demo, Colorblind and Rhymeless. Although that seems like a lot, most of the demo material consists of earlier versions of the same set of songs. Although No Depression benefited from production work by Sean Slade and Paul Q. Kolderie, there wasn’t a lot of record label interference to reshape the tunes from the band’s demo. Not Forever, But for Now made such a strong impression, that most of the changes were in the mixing and engineering, with a few instrumentation tweaks. The downside is that these demos don’t generally shed a lot of light on the group’s development. Still, Slade and Kolderie did tone down some of the rootsy elements and give many of the songs a heavier drive.

In particular, they did a fine job of capturing Farrar’s weathered voice and fattening the songs with a stronger bass response. Comparing the opening track, “Graveyard Shift”, with its 1989 demo version, the two follow the same arrangement, but Farrar’s performance has more emotional depth on the album recording and Tweedy’s bass line jumps out. The title cut shows a bigger difference. The album take is a simple folk rendition, with Farrar slurring his way through the words like Shane MacGowan of the Pogues. By contrast, their demo digs down into a front-parlor bluegrass feel, with banjo and crowd harmonies.

But it’s “Whiskey Bottle” that shows the producers’ heaviest influence. The song opens with the sweet lowing of pedal steel guitar following the acoustic progression. It’s the strongest track on the album, belying the title completely. No depression? Hardly. This is a song about hitting bottom and dealing with the damage. Farrar wearily lays out his situation, “Persuaded, paraded, inebriated, in doubt.” But the chorus is defiant with cathartic distortion as he growls, “A long way from happiness/ In a three-hour-away town/ Whiskey bottle over Jesus/ Not forever, just for now.” The dynamic drop from overdriven chorus to singing steel guitar verses is perfect. The 1989 demo is also powerful, but doesn’t hit as hard. On the album, Slade and Kolderie chose to swap out Farrar’s harmonica for pedal steel, which was an interesting choice. The silky smoothness adds a patina of distance where the harp is more wistful and overtly maudlin. The tempo on the demo is also a bit more hesitant. On their own, Uncle Tupelo evokes some of Bruce Springsteen’s respect for a lowly, everyman character. The album take sharpens the emotional load by tightening the arrangement and coaxing a stronger performance. The live acoustic version, which was included on the 2003 release, leans towards the demo, so this isn’t a completely new revelation. But hearing the difference between the demo and album shows how, even though both are playing the hard chorus against the vulnerable verses, the album production nails that dynamic punch.

Aside from all the alternate versions filling out the second disc, there are a pair of tracks that haven’t been associated with No Depression before. The first is the raucous “I Got Drunk”, presented here in three flavors: the 1990 single, the 1989 demo take and the 1987 cassette version. The bigger surprise is the psychedelic instrumental, “Pickle River”, from Colorblind and Rhymeless. It’s an odd outlier from Uncle Tupelo’s canon. As a part of that earliest demo, it was probably intended to indicate a greater range of what the band could do.

Listen to the two CDs in order or playlist them together to hear the songs evolve over the three years of recording. Either way, No Depression still stands as an iconic album. But it’s not so important what came out of it – the alt-country genre, inspiration for other acts or spin-off bands – instead, it’s all about what Uncle Tupelo sought out and accomplished. They blended the grounded sound of country and folk with restless rock energy to find a musical truth. Not forever, just for now.

(This review first appeared in Spectrum Culture)

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