American retro

Rock byRichard Cook

Rock music always moves forward in waves. By and large, this is a period of retrenchment, especially in American rock: with the back numbers of the music so fully available on CD, inquiring young musicians are picking and choosing from the past in order to create their own particular splash. Especially fruitful is what amounts to a roots movement, reconsidering such impulses as folk, blues, country and rockabilly as they might sound refashioned by and for nineties ears. The most lionised figure in this movement is Beck, the player whose oddball records sound simultaneously ancient and modern: he's like young Tom Edison dealing with rap and hip hop.

But there are plenty of kindred spirits, and one of the most engrossing is Jeff Tweedy of the Texas quartet Wilco. Summer Teeth (Reprise) is the group's second album and it follows on from a widely noticed debut called Being There. The mix this time is the same, only different: brief, smartly carpentered songs that hum with references that you're sure you've heard somewhere and can't quite place. It feels ragged, but close attention reveals no loose ends. It can sound sloppy, but the tunes are arranged with a stamp collector's care. The group seems designed as a vehicle for Tweedy's funny, bleak songs, yet it makes its impact as a band playing music as a collective inspiration.

In other words, it's an act, a careful illusion: as rough and spontaneous as much of it appears, there's nothing left to chance. Reviewers have cited the Byrds and the Beatles as touchstones, yet nothing on the album really sounds anything like either of those groups. It's a jostling sequence of flashes from the rock past which speed by so rapidly they refuse to leave a lasting impression on the listener. That is Wilco's weakness, and their strength: they're the more individual by often sounding like everything and no one.

Tweedy's an obscurantist: his lyrics resemble the music in the way they almost take a familiar shape, then dissolve in some unfathomable metaphor. But the songlist does follow a pattern, starting with a jovially desperate one called "Can't Stand It", and closing, as if after a long day's journey out of night, with "In a Future Age". Another small odyssey of a wry romantic with woman trouble, Tweedy is good at noticing details: one song starts with "The ashtray says/You were up all night". Perhaps this is the stuff of a thousand American college bands, but the way Wilco play it all is rather different to many of their peers.

For one thing, they are not a guitar band. The sound is driven instead by keyboards, and unlikely ones at that - mellotrons, weedy synthesisers, burring organs. The soundmix is clear but unglamorous; no matter how many overdubs there may be on a track, the group comes across as small and close-knit. The music it most closely resembles is the sweetshop haze confected by British psychedelic bands of 30 years before (and Tweedy's voice, a slacker's drawl, sounds like nobody so much as Ray Davies on songs such as "I'm Always in Love"). But instead of that enthusiastic amateurism, Wilco put just enough polish on it to let you know that they're skilled players. Craftsmen, even.

That sense of knowingness, the feel that it's all been done before but is worth doing again, must be the signifying trait of every album by every band of Wilco's ilk. The roots they're refashioning are part of a common language which the four-man rock group is either stuck with or is ennobled by. It depends on how good they are. Wilco are pretty good.

This article first appeared in the 26 March 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Eating people is wrong