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A.M.
Wilco
Reprise Records
1995

It's practically not fair to call this a debut album, since the core members of the band had been playing for years before under the name Uncle Tupelo, but Jeff Tweedy and company offered enough of a change of pace and a newer, poppier aesthetic to their No Depression alternative country that it's also not fair to say this is simply a continuation of their earlier work.

Ironically, Wilco's transformation from A.M. to their current output has been so disparate that neophytes to their current, more philosophical and atmospheric work are often highly put off by the simple country-pop accessibility of their early albums. Hearing people say to me, "I can barely get over how openly country Wilco used to be" is infuriating - not the least of which because I think their early records are better than their new discography - but also because it's like listening to the early Beatles and complaining that their records are too simple. When did wearing your songwriting on your sleeve become such a liability?

Well, in any case, A.M. is one of best alt country records of all time - catchy, affecting, and more than a little overwhelming at times. Heartily recommended for lovers of Tom Petty, The Jayhawks, Poco, Gram Parsons, and Teenage Fanclub.

Tracklist

  • I Must Be High - The album's kickoff track sets the tone for the transformation from old to new: it melds their country-rock roots with their new pop sensibilities seamlessly, tacking on a thick electric guitar solo that (appropriately enough) finishes its work with a twang.
  • Casino Queen - The group takes a Sticky Fingers-era no holds barred bar band approach with their homage to riverboat gambling, including a group singalong and some impromptu hooting and hollering. This song epitomizes what I like to point out as a major disconnect between early Wilco and current Wilco - I'm not sure Jeff Tweedy even knows how to have a good time any more.
  • Box Full of Letters - My second favorite song on the album, it's got their most obvious Tom Petty touches, from the mini-rip of guitar to the direct and earnest lyrics.
  • Shouldn't Be Ashamed - Slowing down things a little, this song builds from a sparse acoustic number flourished by Tweedy's hoarse storytelling into a small-scale tragedy (something the boys excel at.)
  • Pick Up The Change - A decent mid-tempo number, it doesn't exactly improve on the formula perfected by "I Must Be High" (and a lot of their later stuff on Being There and Mermaid Avenue), but it's a serviceable song.
  • I Thought I Held You - A sad honky tonk regret song replete with steel guitar and banjo, it also serves as nice bridge to the middle of the album, which features most of the out and out country tracks.
  • That's Not The Issue - The restrained chug-a-lug of "That's Not The Issue" sums up Wilco's approach to country - always served with a dash of melancholy and post-grunge esprit.
  • It's Just That Simple - Featuring bassist John Stirratt on lead vocals (who coincidentally sounds strangely reminiscent of Eagles bassist Randy Meisner), this molasses two-step is the closest Wilco ever came to simply being Uncle Tupelo reborn. But while Son Volt and Jay Farrar held up the torch, Wilco's future lay elsewhere.
  • Should've Been In Love - One of my favorite songs ever, "Should've Been In Love" features everything I love about Wilco - their earnestness, their easygoing honey melodies, the heartbreak and the headache, and especially their sublime ability to leave things unsaid. They rarely revisit this sort of obvious song quality these days, but when they do, it's all the more powerful.
  • Passenger Side - If I could make one complaint about pop music, it would be starting off songs with the word "Hey." "Passenger Side" is guilty on this count, and subsequently the jokey nature of the rest of the lyrics fall a little flat to me. A kind of one-trick pony.
  • Dash 7 - The slow minimalism that pervades this song makes it the most immediate predecessor to the modern Wilco sound. Its beautiful use of the steel guitar and its shaky hand lyricism have been perfected on some of their later albums, but here it packs a nice disarming punch on an otherwise fairly upbeat record.
  • Blue Eyed Soul - Following up on "Dash 7" is another slow jam-band tinged country rock song. A bit too slow and unimaginative for my taste, it's the weakest track on the album for me.
  • Too Far Apart - As closing songs go, "Too Far Apart" is a bit of question mark: a muddled mix and aimless production is offset by Tweedy's sly lyrics and a great feel-good vibe from a band slowly coming into its own.

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