Thursday, June 6, 2019

Wilco A.M. (1995)

Release Date: March 28, 1995

Active Members: Jeff Tweedy, John Stirratt, Ken Coomer, Max Johnston

Produced by Brian Paulson

Wilco's 1995 debut album A.M. appeared inauspicious at the time. Led by Jeff Tweedy, Wilco was formed after Uncle Tupelo disbanded. Tweedy's former bandmate Jay Farrar went off to convene Son Volt (they are also still active). Wilco continued in the vein of the final Uncle Tupelo record Anodyne, roots rock from the middle of the Midwest.

Brian Henneman of the Bottle Rockets played guitar on some of the tracks for A.M. His liner notes recount the laid back atmosphere of the sessions:

The music just kinda fell from the sky. I vaguely remember Jeff asking if I wanted to join the band, I vaguely remember respectfully declining. It all seemed so haphazard, so unfocused. I wasn't sure this band "Wilco" was gonna make it.

A.M. is a collection of rockers and country rock. No big statements. Nothing flashy. The opener is the zippy guitar driven "I Must Be High" that acknowledges to the uncertainty of the enterprise and bids farewell to Uncle Tupelo:

Always Wanted More Time
To do
What you always wanted to do
Now you got it
And I, I must be high
To say goodbye
Bye bye bye

The lyrics on A.M. are restrained, almost self-conscious. "Casino Queen" takes place in a riverboat casino with a desperate narrator with one of my favorite Wilco scenes:

I hit the second deck 
And I spent my paycheck
And my wife that i just met
She's looking like a wreck

From the Tom Waits ambiance of the casino there's a poignant break up song, "Box Full of Letters." "Shouldn't Be Ashamed" hints at the epic rock convention and adds a layer of soul. Side one ends with three country tinged tracks with prominent banjos: "Pick Up the Change," "I Thought I Held You," and "That's Not the Issue." 

Longtime bassist of Wilco John Stirratt opens side two with the country ballad "It's Just That Simple." The song is Stirratt's only lead vocal in his long history with the band. "Should've Been In Love" deals with small town ennui, while "Passenger Side" remains a favorite in the Wilco catalog. The guy carries a suspended license and he must bum rides off others until his court date in June. Remember when five dollars could fill up the tank?

"Dash 7" deals with the fear of flying and "Blue Eyed Soul" is a total deep cut. The record closes with the playful and cathartic "Too Far Apart."

A.M. received positive critical notice, but was unfavorably compared to the Son Volt record Trace. Wilco kept on going and recorded a double album the following year, Being There. While there sound would go way beyond A.M., the first Wilco record still sounds fresh. The lack of pretension works in its favor. 

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