Folk rock, like Cher, is one of the record industry’s distress signals. Its re-emergence is a sure sign that a lucrative rock trend is on the wane, or that its demographic is getting too old. When the A&R guys trundle out their stable of folkies, it’s their way of saying, “It’s O.K., record buyers, Courtney’s gone now. Come back home to rock.” It happens with the regularity of a seven-year locust. In the mid-60’s, just as girl groups were losing steam, the first folk rockers–the Beau Brummels, the Byrds, Donovan–sprang from the fallow soil. Folk also came jingle-jangling back at the end of that decade–Traffic, Buffalo Springfield, Fairport Convention, the Flying Burrito Brothers–just in time for the hippies to grow up. The floozy disco generation got its mandolin-slapping care of the Eagles. Then just as New Wave was cooking, we had Tracy Chapman to answer to. So, as we watch modern rock at long last bore itself to death with Third Eye Blinds and Matchbox 20’s, listen for the mandolin wind.
That said, folk rock has never been a last resort for Wilco. The quartet’s front man and principal songwriter, Jeff Tweedy, has been at the roots game for nearly a decade and a half now. His first band of note, the legendary Uncle Tupelo, carved out a niche in the St. Louis college-radio scene with a winsome, lonesome sound that incorporated croaky Dinosaur Jr.-ish rock, R.E.M.-infused jangle and Smithsonian Folkways archivalism. Never a commercial success, Uncle Tupelo nonetheless defined the style dubbed No Depression, after the title of the band’s first album. It’s a sensibility audible in root-seeking alternative bands like the Jayhawks, Golden Smog and BR-549, and surfaces on a commercial level in musicians like the Goo-Goo Dolls, Semisonic and Shawn Mullins. But when his songwriting foil and high-school pal, Jay Farrar, adecided to split Uncle Tupelo following the band’s terrific 1993 album Anodyne , a dejected Mr. Tweedy gathered the remains of the band–drummer Ken Coomer, bassist John Stirratt and various-strings man Max Johnston–and carried on. Mr. Farrar went on to form the successful Son Volt. Since the schism, folk-rock esthetes have pitted Messrs. Tweedy and Farrar against each other, imagining them as rival suitors for control of the No Depression movement.
Wilco emerged just as grunge’s death rattle started to shake and record company execs were awakened from rock’s big bidding wars of the 90’s to find precious few guitars on the charts. The band’s first album, A.M. , arrived a bit too early to take full advantage of grunge’s backslide. On its release in 1995, it came up against Alice in Chains, Nirvana, and Pearl Jam when they still had something of a lock on the bottom half of the Billboard 200. Nonetheless, Wilco’s strummy, winning California rock scored the band a couple of minor hits with the breezy “I Must Be High” and the breezy yet thoughtful “Box Full of Letters.”
A.M. drew too many comparisons to Anodyne , and it can easily be read as an extension of that record’s goals. When Wilco entered the studio for the second time, the band’s members clearly felt the folk rock walls closing in on them. The 1996 double album Being There was a conscious attempt to break out of the No Depression dust bowl and put the ghosts of Uncle Tupelo to rest. The shaggy, 19-song, self-produced opus that resulted could’ve used a haircut, and it was something of a commercial stutter after A.M. Still, it was an apt demonstration of Mr. Tweedy’s sharpened tongue as a songwriter–and it showed the band expanding its arrangements and seeking a new identity. Both of which bear fruit on Wilco’s latest release, Summer Teeth (Reprise).
This time out, the band turned what could have been another folk-rock retread into a surprisingly omnivorous album. Though it was recorded in dribs and drabs as the band toured over the last year and a half, the bulk of the sessions were split between Chicago’s ultra-hip King Size Sound Laboratories and Austin’s roots central, Pedernales Studios. That about fixes the compass points of Summer Teeth . Dividing itself roughly between stylish Pet Sounds -flavored psychedelia and raw, rootsy pop, the disk manages to subdivide further into a discrete style for each song.
If Wilco was looking for a way out of its No Depression depression, it found 15. Like Hüsker Dü’s massive Warehouse: Songs and Stories or Smashing Pumpkins’ overstuffed Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness , Summer Teeth reads like a map of potential escape routes for a trapped band. Route 1: “Can’t Stand It,” a born single, goes for a wry groove–a bit like a Pavement song played by experts–as Mr. Tweedy tries out a nonplused Beck-like rap. Route 2: “She’s a Jar” is like Pink Floyd, but human. Route 3: “A Shot in the Arm,” begins with a burbling synth arpeggiator and, as the timpani pounds, transforms into a rowdy and unnerving garage rocker. Other songs point the way to the Small Faces’ “Itchycoo Park,” Elvis Costello’s Imperial Bedroom , the Replacements’ garage and Stereolab’s Martian excursions.
And so it goes, with Wilco artfully flipping styles song by song, each new number adding a new toy–Mellotron-ish flute, barrelhouse piano, a sampled opera singer, twittering birdies. It’s a lovely ride, even if some of the wilder detours seem a bit contrived. The glue is Mr. Tweedy’s voice, which manages to straddle pained sincerity and an affable, regular-guy sarcasm. On “A Shot in the Arm,” that voice casually sizes up the concept of the record: “What you once were isn’t what you want to be anymore.” Previous Wilco efforts have been criticized for sounding too workmanlike, but that’s one of the pitfalls of having such an able band. Summer Teeth finds the band at its most relaxed and playful. Its recent collaboration with Billy Bragg on last year’s Mermaid Avenue , writing music for a collection of unrecorded Woody Guthrie lyrics, may have taught Wilco to play more like a pickup band. And Jay Bennett, who’s been gradually moving into Mr. Johnston’s position since Being There , adds a little bit of “uh-huh” to the band’s capacity for a whole lotta “oh-yeah.”
For Wilco, this is a perversely contemporary record. But with all the genre-hopping, rummage-sale instrumentation and found sounds creeping in, Summer Teeth is fundamentally folk rock, as comfy in its schizophrenic way as the Beau Brummels. It seems you can take a band out of the country, but you can’t kick out the lap-steel player. Anywhere Wilco lays its head, Tweedy and company manage to call it down home.