The Over/Under: Wilco


When we last saw our friend Roob (you’d know him if you saw him), he was catching 10 tons of flak from Guided By Voices fans for expressing his opinion about some GBV songs. This time, he decided to address the catalog of a band whose fans are only slightly less rabid. Here are his five most overrated and five most underrated Wilco songs. Duck, Roob!

:: The Five Most Overrated Wilco Songs
1. “Hummingbird” (2004)
Maybe it’s the fact that the revered “Hummingbird” starts out sounding like a Ben Folds outtake. Or maybe it’s how a minute in, the thing just kind of falls apart before being put back together—and then falls apart again. Or maybe it’s how any song that includes a reference to a hummingbird inevitably reminds me of that ghastly Seals & Crofts hit from the early ’70s. Or maybe it’s how the overblown coda just doesn’t fit the rest of the song. Whatever the reason, “Hummingbird” is nails on a blackboard.

2. “Impossible Germany” (2007)
Nels Cline is a gifted guitar player who came to rock music later in life after devoting most of his career to improv, jazz and experimental styles. Now that he’s here, Cline seems determined to make up for lost time. Hence, his 146-minute guitar solo in the middle of “Impossible Germany.” The only redeeming part of the song is the blocky chords that resolve Cline’s meandering solo and lead up to the 71-minute coda. So Cline has managed something amazing here: creating a guitar solo that is so dull and aimless it’s impossible to listen to it without literally begging the solo to end. It usually doesn’t work.

3. “Via Chicago” (1999)
“Via Chicago” may be a powerful song, but I can’t listen to it anymore. At least not the Summerteeth version. The problem is that Jeff Tweedy’s vocal is so damn overwrought, it just overwhelms some pretty good lyrics and music. Listen to the Tweedster sing, “I rest my head on a pillowy star.” His voice is just oozing with gravitas. Painful. I knew I had a problem with “Via Chicago” when I started fast-forwarding past that line. Good song. Excruciating vocal.

4. “What Light” (2007)
What crap.

5. “Theologians” (2004)
“Theologians,” sings Tweedy, “don’t know nothing about my soul.” Which prompts this question: Why should they? Why the hell—excuse me, why the heck—would scholars who study religion and spirituality know or care about the soul of a pop singer from Belleville, Ill.? It’s like if somebody wrote a song that had the lyrics, “Architects don’t know nothing about my house.” Well, yeah, they don’t. They don’t claim to. As absurd as the whole premise of the song is, Tweedy continues, “I’m an ocean.” Really? Maybe we can find an oceanographer somewhere? Anybody?

:: The Five Most Underrated Wilco Songs
1. “Company In My Back” (2004)
“Company In My Back” just may be the best Wilco song ever recorded, and you never hear anything about it. Well, hell, I never hear anything about any Wilco songs. Other than Phil (you’d know him if you saw him), my friends all listen to Counting Crows. (What’s that all about? Seriously. Counting Crows? They sucked even when they were good.) Anyway, “Company In My Back” is a little gem, one of those songs you hear a bunch of times and doesn’t quite make an impression on you—and then maybe the 41st time, it just hits you that this is one of the finest damn things you’ve ever heard and why the hell didn’t you realize it a month ago? Those kinds of songs, with powerful time-release qualities, always turn out to be the most enduring. “Company In My Back” is also one of those rare tracks whose choruses are just as strong—if not stronger—than the verse. All in all, an unknown nugget from deep within the Wilco catalog.

2. “A Shot In The Arm” (1999)
“The ashtray says you were up all night.” That’s the best damn opening line of any Wilco song. Incredibly vivid image in just eight words. In fact, the entire first verse is pretty damn brilliant. Consider this: “Your pillow wept and covered your eyes and you finally slept while the sun caught fire.” Devastating stuff. What’s really killer is the two-word mini-couplet that separates the first two verses; simply, “You’ve changed.” What truly makes “A Shot In The Arm” such a mighty track is how such a crushing song musically bounces along so merrily. I love that kind of stuff.

3. “Heavy Metal Drummer” (2002)
The Wilco message board, Via Chicago, is a creepy kind of place. Have you seen it? The Tweedites who congregate there all think alike. They love Bon Iver. They hate Son Volt. They love She & Him. They hate Son Volt. They love Bonnie “Prince” Billy. They hate Son Volt. And they all hate “Heavy Metal Drummer.” They don’t just hate it, they look down on it. Sneer at it. It’s just not sophisticated enough. Come on, this is supposed to be Wilco, all erudite and elusive and vague and deconstructing the music. They hate “Heavy Metal Drummer” because it’s just a dumb, simple, poppy song about hanging out with your friends watching cover bands play the hits and drinking warm beer and being teenagers. Well, you know what? Dumb, simple and poppy songs can be a damn good thing. Whenever I hear “Heavy Metal Drummer,” I picture Tweedy and Jay Farrar as miserable 17-year-olds decked out in their finest flannel standing out there on the landing, and it makes me happy. This might be the most-hated song among hardcore Wilco fans, which is a shame.

4. “Box Full Of Letters” (1995)
Tweedites hate AM almost as much as they hate “Heavy Metal Drummer.” It’s not innovative, it’s not deep, it’s not groundbreaking. AM showed up just a couple years after Uncle Tupelo’s Anodyne (an absolute classic) and a year before Being There (a brilliant record), but it holds its own with a stack of straight-ahead tracks that sound incredible more than a decade later. I could have easily included “It’s Just That Simple” (co-written—and sung—by bassist John Stirratt), “Pick Up The Change” or the ridiculous “Casino Queen” (which I love nonetheless). But “Box Full Of Letters” gets the nod, both because it sounds so damn good and I love the chords and the little guitar solo and also because of the lyrics, which I’ve always assumed were a final goodbye to Farrar. When I hear the line, “I’ve got a lot of your records in a separate stack,” I always wonder what records Farrar left behind. When I hear the line, “Wish I had a lot of answers,” I realize that Tweedy really never did understand why Farrar broke up Uncle Tupelo. When I hear the line, “You’ll come back again,” I always think, “Hey, maybe one day I’ll see Uncle Tupelo one more time blasting away at ‘Gun’ and ‘Looking For A Way Out.’” You never know.

5. “Remember The Mountain Bed” (2000)
Technically not a Wilco song, but a track from the second Mermaid Avenue project, with lyrics by the legendary Woody Guthrie and music by Tweedy and the underrated Jay Bennett. Guthrie’s words are so achingly beautiful and incomprehensibly sad that I can’t imagine trying to put them to music. But Tweedy and Bennett pulled it off in astonishing fashion with a simple chord progression that lets the words breathe but is also beautiful enough to serve as an equal to the lyrics. A masterpiece.

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