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Critics' Choice
WILCO'S FORMATIVE YEARS DETAILED
12/19/17

By Bud Scoppa

Wilco, A.M.: Deluxe Edition, Being There: Deluxe Edition (Rhino): When Jeff Tweedy cobbled together Wilco in 1994 out of Uncle Tupelo’s spare parts, nobody expected much. But the fledgling band’s 1995 debut album A.M. revealed that UT’s low-keyed former second banana had something to say and a character-rich vocal instrument to get it across. “At the time, I wrote a lot of songs just sitting on the couch, just me and acoustic guitar,” Tweedy explained during a 2005 conversation. “And those arrangements went on the record. I think it’s a unique-sounding record, and I don’t think that I’ve ever written a song better than ‘Passenger Side’ in terms of just making a totally straightforward narrative happen in a song, and making it all work. That’s all I’ve ever asked of any song.”

The eight outtakes added to the reissue—including bass player John Stirratt’s “When You Find Trouble, the last song recorded under the UT nameplate, and Tweedy’s Replacements-style ragged rocker “Hesitation Rocks”—reinforce the initial perception of Wilco as a shaggily engaging alt-country band more approachable than UT leader Jay Farrar’s austere Son Volt.

If A.M. appeared to introduce a rootsy American band that sought to follow in the footsteps of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the sprawling double CD Being There, recorded with the A.M. core lineup plus multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett and released the following year, found Tweedy unexpectedly and self-assuredly “drawing outside the lines,” as he put it to me at the time. Or, as Steven Hyden explains in his insightful reissue liner notes, Tweedy “needed to figure out a new approach to his art—something a little less literal and a whole lot more improvisational, so Wilco could retain the gravitas of roots music without being hemmed in by it.” His risk-taking not only resulted in a latter-day Exile on Main St., it also set the template for one of the greatest, most beloved American bands of the last quarter century.

The five-CD expanded reissue is loaded with goodies: one disc containing eight alternate takes and seven demos and outtakes, all previously unreleased, and a 20-song Troubadour set from November 1996 spanning two discs. This performance, recorded for a Reprise promo piece, documents the band taking flight from its four-square beginnings to the stratosphere. The final disc is tagged with a masterful four-song mini-set performed live on air for KCRW. Without question, Being There: Deluxe Edition is an essential addition to the Wilco canon.