BRK's Underground Garage

BRK reviews another classic album in Uncle Tupelo's "Anodyne."

An Introduction:

After the introduction posted last week, there probably is not too much left to say, however, with that in mind, I will offer the following. This week's review remains my singularly favorite album of all time. Now, not everyone will feel the same way, but to me, Uncle Tupelo's Anodyne stands above anything else I own for reasons beyond musical presentation and into sentimentality. That said, onto our review….

The History Lesson:

Uncle Tupelo - in many cases, the enigmatic band remains the standard in the Alt-Country genre nearly 12 years after they formally split ways.

Uncle Tupelo? Never heard of them?

Simply put, they defined the Alternative Country movement and its progeny during the early to mid 1990's.

What constitutes and alt-country act?

The genre itself represents a mix of the practical aspects of country blended with a multitude of other musical influences including punk, rock, emo, and folk.

The band developed a more than cult like following within the St. Louis area during their early years (they formed in Bellville, Illinois). With energetic live shows and a strong stage presence, the band quickly went from filling up small local St. Louis nightclubs to filling up some of St. Louis's more prominent nightclubs. In some cases, the mere band itself stands as a who's who within the Alternative Country movement:

Jay Farrar - Guitar (Son Volt, Slaughter Rule Soundtrack, Jay Farrar)

Jeff Tweedy - Bass (Wilco, Chelsea Walls Soundtrack, Loose Fur, The Minus Five)

Mike Heidorn - Drums (Bottle Rockets)

The Album:

After years of developing their fan base not only within the St. Louis region but also nationally, Uncle Tupelo signed with Sire/Rhino records for the release of their fourth album.

Listening to the Anodyne album brings a variety of feeling and emotions throughout the disc. One would generally assume that a pure country album may represent a rather drab endeavor - Anodyne bucks the trend, however, pleasantly mixing not only the a melodic blend of country and folk music, but also straight-on rock and roll, and to a limited degree, a precursor to the modern emo movement (think of a deconstructed Strokes album).

Unbeknownst to many, this album would not only represent the best disc produced by the band, but also their last corroborate effort before parting ways. Despite the growing success of the band through their previous albums (No Depression, Still Feel Gone, and March 16-20) Anodyne, on an overall basis, represents the best of Uncle Tupelo. The album contains a wide variety of music which stretches from the hybrid alt-country genre all though punk, rock & roll, country, and folk. The album begins with "Slate" and a serenading fiddle and Jay Farrar's unique vocals introducing a blend of folk and county. This song alone does not portend the rest of the album, however, as Anodyne seamlessly shifts into a more rock-based track espousing the importance of perseverance in life, "The Long Cut".

Seamlessly shifting between guitar-driven melodies and country-esqe fair such as "New Madrid" and "No Sense in Lovin'" the album presents the listener not only with a diverse set of sounds, but also with a unique opportunity to listen to a band which effectively crosses multiple genres. Songs such as Chickamauga (an ode to an old Civil War battle site) and "We've been had" present the punk-ish side of the band. As a band with multiple musical influences (often cited include Neil Young, The Soft Boys, Iggy Pop, The New Riders, CCR, Johnny Cash), the album succeeds in delivering a series of songs which keep the listener entertained while also providing what amounts to an excellent disc to listen to on a long road trip.

It's Sorta Like…:

Uncle Tupelo started it all - there are many mentions of bands from which Uncle Tupelo takes some influence, however in the modern age of music, many bands have taken pieces of the original Uncle Tupelo song an developed it within their own music. The most obvious instances of this come from the three bands which Uncle Tupelo directly spawned: Son Volt, Wilco, and The Bottle Rockets. However, many other bands count Uncle Tupelo as a defining influence in their careers and albums including Whiskeytown, The Jayhakws, The Silver Jews, The Thorns, and Pete Drudge.

Caveat Emperor (Let the Buyer Beware):

Jay Farrar's vocals can certainly grind on some people (just ask Mike Frank). It is understandable, as Farrar can sound at the very least nasally and at the worst somewhat whiny during his vocals…if you let it grow on you, it will, however.

The Verdict:

Anodyne, simply put remains my favorite album some 11 years (headed into 12) after its initial release. Why? The album represents not only an eclectic mix of music, but also represents what remains as one of the greatest group assemblies of talent in the last 20 years of music-making. High praise, you may ask? Obviously, to a degree, this statement carries much weight. However, to both myself and many other listeners, Uncle Tupelo represents a modern example of such fantastic groups as the Yardbirds.

Coming Up:

R.L. Burnside – Burnside on Burnside, Robert Randolph - Unclassified, The Word – The Word, Yo La Tengo – Summer Sun, and Handsome Boy Modeling School – White People

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