Thursday, September 13, 2007

[070] Summerteeth

Album: Summerteeth
Artist: Wilco
Release Date: March 1999
Label: Reprise
Producers: Wilco

“When I forget how to talk, I sing
Won’t you please bring that flash to shine
And turn my eyes red, unless they close
When you click and my face gets sick
Stuck, like a question unposed”
- from “She’s A Jar”

Wilco’s third album, Summerteeth, is the best pure Pop album of the last 20 years. But first, let’s discuss what Pop is, as a musical phenomenon. There’s a reason why Elvis Presley is such an important figure in the journey of 20th century music. He represents both halves of Pop: the exploration of sound as pleasure for a mass audience, and the public persona that must be marketed to promote said music. Motown, The Beatles and The Beach Boys continued this dichotomy for a little while, but they eventually decided to concentrate on the craft of Pop; it’s not an accident that around the time they did this, The Monkees formed and came to represent the commerciality of Pop. Pop is now a Siamese creature, running these parallel threads that every once in a while crossover and weave together to create beautiful moments of aural goodness. Traditionalists, classicists, or “Rockists”, whatever you want to call them, have always placed a heavy importance on the craft of Pop; that what makes Pop qualify as ‘good’ is based on the skill of the musical artist, whether it’s strong songwriting or instrumental virtuosity. People who are not Rockist feel that whatever is good is good. For example, they’re the tatted-up Brooklynites in the vintage tees bumping Britney’s “Toxic” on their iPod. These people usually also recognize the valuable input of the non-artist, whether it’s the producer, the engineers, the label people, etc. When you get right down to it, it’s the ‘Music’ vs. the ‘Business’ and both have proven to have great tunes in them.

Before this album, Wilco was a rockist's wet dream, an organic update of The Band cutting solid Americana live in the studio. Then, all of a sudden Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett got stoned on painkillers (look at Tweedy's face on the back cover!), and bought Pro Tools; now the band’s rhythm section felt marginalized by the duo’s increasing experimentation with keyboards and overdubs, primarily Bennett's new mellotron, which is slathered all over the record. The rockist dream was now a nightmare, and Tweedy and Bennett honed their songs into some of the sweetest Pop of all-time; it didn't matter that they were kind of the old guys at the club. Summerteeth was conceived and released into the new Pop landscape, filled with Floridian boy bands, schoolgirl skirts and bad choreography, and rock radio that only cared about the new rap-rock with outstretched hands begging for platinum. Despite the critical worship, it was commercially ignored. There was Wilco, stuck between the two heads of Pop, going unloved by both.

But Summerteeth was still Pop to the core, pulled from The Beatles, Beach Boys, and Band, and on a base level, it wasn’t so different from the piano-driven 70’s mega-hits of Elton John and Billy Joel. It’s a 14-song masterpiece juxtaposing a fractured heart with rainbows of sounds. Zonked out on the drugs, with even a few songs alluding to heroin use, Tweedy wrote a bunch of skeletal songs dealing with his marital problems and the stresses of touring, and let Bennett build monuments of swirling sound on top; somehow he had the perfect sunny sounds to go with Tweedy’s personal rainclouds. The overall mood is closest to Pink Floyd's 1975 classic, Wish You Were Here, in that the lush sound is warm and comforting, but the lyrics are startlingly negative. Even on the downbeat, layered "She's A Jar", with its double vocal recalling so vividly that Pink Floyd, the infamous line "she begs me not to hit her" leaves you taken aback; the murder fantasy and noisy crescendo of the mini-epic "Via Chicago" are more shocking, though Tweedy offsets it by unleashing his developing literature-based lyric style, and then immediately following it with the opening of "ELT": "...Wishing that you were dead; I didn't mean to be so disturbing so far from home". Like those two tracks, for every languid, sadsack dirge, there's a bouncy, upbeat counterpart; The Kinksian let's-stay-together sentiment of "Nothing'severgonnastandinmyway(again)" is followed up by the adultery of the shuffling "Pieholden Suite".

Pop music thrives on stress and conflict, and in many ways that battle keeps music going. Jeff Tweedy's strife was both internal (with himself, with addiction) and external (with his wife, with his bandmates) - if this was a VH-1 reality show, it would be a massive hit. America loves this kind of potential carwreck that leads to an artistic triumph. Summerteeth succeeds because it defines Pop music; the melodicism, the songcraft, the careful production, the torn heart. What’s that famous quote from High Fidelity? "Did I listen to Pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to Pop music?" Exactly - That sums up Summerteeth better than anything.

01. “Can’t Stand It”
02. “She’s A Jar”
03. “A Shot In The Arm”
04. “We’re Just Friends”
05. “I’m Always In Love”
06. “Nothing’severgonnastandinmyway(again)”
07. “Pieholden Suite”
08. “How To Fight Loneliness”
09. “Via Chicago”
10. “ELT”
11. “My Darling"
12. “When You Wake Up Feeling Old”
13. “Summer Teeth”
14. “In A Future Age”
16. "Candy Floss" [unlisted bonus track]
17. "A Shot In The Arm" [alt. take; unlisted bonus track]

"A Shot In The Arm" [live in Indiana, 04.06]

- BONUS: "Via Chicago" [live at Bonnaroo '07]
- BONUS: "I'm Always In Love" [live in the studio]
from the documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart
- BONUS: "Pieholden Suite" [live rehearsal]
from the documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart
- BONUS: "How To Fight Loneliness" [live in the studio]
from the documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart

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