Perfect Teeth

An expanded version of Summerteeth explores Wilco’s shifting stance

Wilco ’99 (Art: Ron Hart)

Early on, after their transition from the ashes of the renegade roots combo Uncle Tupelo, Wilco found themselves comfortably sequestered in a unique niche, one that helped initiate the beginnings of a new wave that came to be called Americana.

At the time, there was no specific handle for that particular sound, given that most pundits referred to it only as an extension of the so-called No Depression movement established at the end of the ‘80s and subsequently in the early ‘90s. Indeed, Jeff Tweedy, a seminal member of the aforementioned Uncle Tupelo, was singled out as one of the prime players in that renaissance, and by the time Summerteeth, Wilco’s third album emerged, the band — comprised of thr classic lineup of Tweedy on vocals and guitar, singer/guitarist Jay Bennett, drummer Ken Coomer and bassist John Stirratt — was firmly etched in the Americana firmament. The record was a fine follow-up to the band’s sophomore set, Being There, but sadly didn’t reap the same level of commercial success as it its predecessor.

Still, it did reflect the band’s ongoing growth since their A.M, their initial effort released four years before. At the same time, it was the band’s final song-oriented album, given the fact that their next release, Foxtrot, would mark the beginning of the group’s more experimental phase and a move away from the traditional template that marked their musical stance early on.  

It’s significant as well that Summerteeth was sandwiched between Wilco’s two detours into Mermaid Avenue, a pair of collaborations with the insurgent English folk singer Billy Bragg, which found all involved putting original music to lyrics left behind by Woody Guthrie.

Wilco Summerteeth, Reprise 1999

Ironically, Summerteeth also found Tweedy engaged in a contemplative state of mind of his own. His marriage was in a state of flux, and Tweedy escaped that predicament by becoming consumed with literary influences spawned from immersion in the works of various 20th century authors. The resulting melodies seemed somewhat elusive at times, torn between a yin and a yang that would shift the tone and tempo of certain songs unexpectedly and indecisively all at the same time. Such was the case with “A Shot in the Arm,” “Via Chicago,” “ELT,” and “My Darling,” often veering the melodies from a smooth caress to something akin to cacophony all within the expanse of their singular setting. While taking that tack might be seen as some as the prelude to the band’s more experimental phase that was still two years away, it likely had to do with Tweedy’s unsettled state of mind as well.

Given the same expanded treatment accorded Being There, this new four CD version of Summerteeth makes for an essential acquisition for Wilco fans and followers, having supplemented the original offering with an tire disc boasting no less than two dozen demos and outtakes, most dominated by Tweedy running through various takes of the songs in their seminal states. Most bear little resemblance to the finished tracks, having been revealed here in a stripped-down state. In essence however they effectively embellish the previously released line-up. Indeed, hearing Tweedy’s plaintive croon on a song like “Tried and True” gives full evidence of the melancholymood he was in at the time.

Summerteeth unboxed (Photo: Rhino Records)

On the other hand, the two additional discs boasting a November 1999 concert from the Boulder Theater in Boulder, Colorado, reflect the sound of a band in full flourish, decidedly energized and inspired. They had a rich catalog to draw from at the time, and hearing them regaling in such songs as “I Must Be High,” “Candyfloss,” “A Shot in the Arm,” and ‘New Madrid” suggests that the group was at the peak of their prowess. 

Ultimately, this expanded Summerteeth offers a sound for all seasons. Despite the occasional downcast disposition, it finds Wilco ready for a future flush with promise and prosperity.

 

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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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