Review Summary: An alt-country masterpiece.
Jeff Tweedy is probably best known as the genius behind alt rock darlings Wilco. Currently a six-piece, Wilco has released acclaimed album after acclaimed album, cementing themselves as one of today’s most loved alternative bands. However, hiding underneath the shadow of this Illinois sextet is Mr. Tweedy’s earlier band, the significantly lesser known Uncle Tupelo. Evolving out of garage rock band The Primitives, Uncle Tupelo’s original line-up of Jay Farrar (Guitar, Vocals), Jeff Tweedy (Bass, Acoustic Guitar, Vocals) and Mike Heidorn (Drums) put out three albums in the early 90s, the abrasive country/punk monster “No Depression“ in 1990, the more polished and refined “Still Feel Gone” in 91, and their acoustic release “March 16-20, 1992“ the year after. After replacing the departed Mike Heidorn with Ken Coomer, and then adding John Stirratt (Guitar, Bass) and multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston to the line-up, the band set off to record their major label debut, Anodyne.
The term “Anodyne” is defined by dictionary.com as “A medicine that relieves or allays pain.”. Compared to the punk rock influence of the first two albums and the stripped down acoustic arrangements of “March 16-20, 1992“, Anodyne comes across sounding exactly like it’s name suggests. Dense instrumentally and lyrically, "Anodyne" is different from the other releases in Tupelo‘s limited discography, trading the distorted guitars and Minutemen influenced start-stop structures found in songs such as “No Depression’s” “Graveyard Shift” for more complex arrangements featuring a more prominent use of the fiddle and steel guitar. This new sound is well demonstrated by “No Sense In Lovin’” and the title track. Both are propelled by a pedal steel guitar (played by special guest Lloyd Maines) while the rest of the band jogs along underneath. Also present are acoustic songs such as the relaxing fiddle-led opener “Slate”, and the Doug Sahm cover “Give Back The Key To My Heart” which features the country legend himself on guitar and vocals.
Vocal duties on “Anodyne” are shared by Jay and Jeff, who each sing lead on their own compositions. Despite the fact that their voices are both very different from each other's (Jay sings in raspy howl while Jeff uses his signature tenor), they both complement each other very nicely when they sing together such as in the chorus of “New Madrid“. Also, having two vocalists ensures that neither voice will become tiring to the listener by the end of the record. As mentioned earlier, country prodigy Doug Sahm contributes vocals on “Give Back The Key To My Heart”, singing the second verse while Jay handles the first. One of the album’s vocal highlights is the song’s second chorus, which has Jay, Jeff, and Doug all singing together.
Some songs such as “The Long Cut” and “Chickamauga” are a nod back to the band’s heavier roots. A high point in Jeff Tweedy’s career as a songwriter, “The Long Cut” also boasts some of his best vocals and a very impressive lead guitar performance from Jay. On the other hand, “Chickamauga” is all Jay’s show. The song features some great vocal hooks, and climaxes with Farrar’s best guitar solo on the album. All in all, “Anodyne” is an alternative country masterpiece , and is a great entry album for anyone looking to get into the genre. Just don’t be expecting Wilco.