Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Still Feel Gone (Record #76)

This series is a continuation/"simulcast" of a series I do on Facebook about my mathematically determined Top 100 Records.

Uncle Tupelo

Rock Pile, 1991

No Depression is the watershed Uncle Tupelo record, but that’s because of what it represents, not what it is. That record slams out of the gate with some fantastic songs—“Graveyard Shift,” “That Year,” “Before I Break”--but its second half is as weak as you’d expect from a record made by 19-year-olds. Do you ever listen to “John Hardy” or “So-Called Friend”? I don’t.

That’s not to say that Still Feel Gone is consistent, although its lows aren’t quite as low as No Depression’s. Jeff Tweedy’s songs remain sub-par for the most part, with the exception of the opening “Gun,” a Replacements-style barn-burner that’s the first perfect song Tweedy ever wrote. But “Watch Me Fall” shuffles its way nowhere, and “If That’s Alright” dies on the runway. “Nothing” fares a little better, although it’s attitude rather than skill that makes it worthwhile.

No, this is still Jay Farrar’s show, and Farrar’s big revelation is that he could write beer-weepers like “Still Be Around” just as well as he could write punk-screechers like “Postcard”--maybe even better. “Still Be Around” is a classic, a distillation of everything Farrar does right. He’s always had one of the best voices in both rock and country music, aged well before its time by cigarettes and whiskey, and hitting all the wrong notes in all the right places. This song beats the hell out of anything on No Depression, tossing out references to “Whiskey Bottle” just so we know he knows this is better.

The twin cousin to “Still Be Around” is “True to Life,” in which Farrar updates and reifies “Factory Belt” as a late-‘70s Springsteen anthem. It starts off slow. “I can only sing it loud. I always try to sing it clear,” he says, and then the other shoe falls with the beat: “What the hell are we all doing here?” It’s really a continuation of No Depression’s “Factory Belt,” with the angry guitars replaced by resignation and harmonica.

The band was still living in Belleville, Illinois, at this time, that remnant of the Rust Belt filled with dying car and beer factories, and Farrar’s dissatisfaction with the town bleeds through every note he sings. The one-two explosion of “Punch Drunk” and “Postcard” provide a slice of life in future ghost towns. “Everybody’s just spending his time just building and making / Someday, someone will say, ‘For what?’” he rages in the former--Farrar would never write another song this violent--before following it up in the latter with, “Nothing here to stand on.”

Even the song titles reflect the pain he feels for the broken-down blue-collars around him. There’s “Looking for a Way Out” (“You spent your whole life in this county / Never been out of state”), and there’s “Discarded” (“So goddamned hard to make it work / No easy way out of this one”). Farrar was working in his parents’ used bookstore at the time, and so he probably didn’t have first-hand experience in the beer factory, but he’s genuine and believable when he sings about this stuff.

Uncle Tupelo wouldn’t be in Belleville much longer--they’d move to St. Louis sometime between March 16-20, 1992 and Anodyne--and coincidentally or not, their music calmed down when they left. Something about the town itself seems to have turned them into the Minutemen, and while Still Feel Gone has its country elements, they’re less present than on No Depression, and certainly less so than on their next two records. Protest songs are easier when your guitars turn into razorblades, I suppose.

And so it is that Still Feel Gone is without a doubt the band’s most conventionally angry record--when it’s not out-and-out raging at George H.W. Bush and trickle-down economics, it’s in despair, the other side of anger. Uncle Tupelo (and for that matter, Son Volt and Wilco) would make better records, but never one this righteously indignant, this fed-up.

Gun *****
Looking for a Way Out ****
Fall Down Easy ****
Nothing ****
Still Be Around *****
Watch Me Fall ***
Punch Drunk ****
Postcard ****
D. Boon ***
True to Life *****
Cold Shoulder ***
Discarded ****
If That’s Alright ***

1 comment:

Meredith said...

i'm really liking the direction your blog is taking.