The magazine that turned out to be the house organ for the style of music that No Depression basically codified took, toward the end of its life, to insisting that it had nothing to do with Uncle Tupelo and was, instead, named after the Carter Family song of the same name1. On the surface that seems, ultimately, like a cagey way to remaneuver your brand into a market segment. And probably it was. But one of the most frustrating truths about country music is, and basically always has been, how focused on image and propriety the whole thing is. From Nashville’s insistence on toeing the party line (and even occasionally letting people in who appear not to, provided they don’t upset the apple cart too much) all the way down to the “authenticity”-obsessed weirdoes that you can find at Gillian Welch shows this world over, it simply isn’t very often that a great country album is made by a band that just….likes and wants to make country music2. And that’s what Uncle Tupelo were, at least at the time. I suppose the fact that their two songwriters went on to be, respectively, an authenticity-obsessed weirdo and a dad-rocking party-line toer shows that the band itself wasn’t immune to the effect of playing and listening to country music, but Uncle Tupelo could have been any kind of band in the world. They were, instead, a punk-rock trio that did everything they could to sound like the kind of band that would fill the seats in a bar in rural Missouri, or in any other three-hour-away town. And in the process they made a record that is simultaneously – simply by being what it is – a celebration of omnivorous musical obsession and a veritable concept album about being young and stuck in a place where not only is nothing likely to happen, but if it did no one else would even care.
In a way, Spiderland is as well-known for the stories around its genesis – the possible hospitalization of its members, the too-late response of PJ Harvey to their open inquiry for singers – as it is for the music itself, especially since time has passed and one isn’t ever mentioned without the other. And that’s fine – a compelling story is a compelling story. But there were a lot of records in the late eighties and early nineties that were given credit for – and often actually did manage to – the invention of a new sound, especially within a rock-band context. What Slint deserve musical praise for, other than their virtuosity3, is managing to so thoroughly change the rock paradigm by, essentially, magnifying it. They were hardly the first band to be quite and then very loud, but the way they made the dynamic itself the through-line of the song, rather than a melody or a rhythm, as rock was built, was probably the single most important touchstone of post-rock, not to mention for a thousand soundtrack-friendly instrumental regular ol’ rock bands (without Spiderland, there would be no Explosions in the Sky, and therefore, to a lesser extent, no super-satisfying touchdowns on Friday Night Lights). Basically, by reshaping what a rock song could be while still using two guitars, a bass and a drum kit, they created a whole new volume in rock music’s vocabulary without having to invent a new alphabet, and that’s something to be respected.
REM, on the other hand, didn’t really invent anything. Sometimes a band is great because they find a new way to say something, or because they find a new thing to say entirely. Sometimes timing or context give what they’re saying in an old or less-new way added depth and meaning. And sometimes a really good band makes a really good record and, in so doing, touches the things that lots of other records touch in a new way. It would be inaccurate to call REM sonic innovators, but it would be unfair to say that that’s a requirement for greatness. Sometimes you just want someone to do a job really well.
You know I had to call, you know why right?
Because, yo, I never – ever – call and ask you to play something, right?
You know what I wanna hear, right?
– What do you wanna hear?
I wanna hear that Wu-Tang joint
– Wu-Tang again?
Aw yeah! Again and Again!
There’s basically nothing that any writer or reviewer can add to what the group themselves already committed to record. The leadoff single for their first record, “Protect Ya Neck” added a bit at the beginning to make it clear to the album-buyers that they were already jumping on the train after it had left the station, and continues to live in the future – or at least ahead of the listener – for the rest of its run time. Over time, Wu Tang would become impossible to separate, untangle, or consider apart from its side projects, its personal business, and the members’ extracurricular activities, and so in a lot of ways 36 Chambers looms large because of its position as the only “unified” statement from camp Wu. In a lot of other ways, though, it looms large over basically anyone else’s records because a unified statement from Camp Wu is basically a better set of ideas than you, or I, will ever have.
Almost twenty years on, it’s almost impossible to overstate Nas’ first record’s impact on hip hop (albeit with a lot of people who’d be happy to take a swing at it), but it’s also hard to explain to people that aren’t aware of its place in history all of what makes it so incredible4. But that’s ok, because on its own merits, Illmatic isn’t much like any other record ever made. In its aftermath, Nas would turn out to be one of the early-twentieth-century’s best singles rappers, coming up with a song or two on each record that made you really miss the days when he could put together a whole album. But he could’ve gone the rest of his life without making another back-to-front great record, because Illmatic is good enough to make every argument that, when Nas had it together, he was one of the very greatest ever.
One of the words I’m not using to describe any of these records is “timeless.” For one thing, the word is almost always used to mean “good no matter what time you’re listening to it in,” which is kind of bullshit – all good records are good now. Otherwise they aren’t good. But even aside from that, it generally means “this sounds dated in a way I can understand” or, alternately “this doesn’t sound dated if you listen to it contextually.” All that said and complained about: Viva Last Blues is a record that really doesn’t give up any information about itself and is, in its way, timeless. Will Oldham’s voice sounds like a force of nature (albeit a creaky, smoky force of nature), the sparse, simple playing makes it sound like a record made by accident, like those microphones chanced upon these songs being sung and played for the amusement of the players themselves, without any real thought about who might want to listen to them outside the room. In its singularity, and insularity, and probably a couple of other arities as well, it manages to perfectly convey some of the most beautiful songs ever written.
Every snobby beardfaced hipster has probably explained to someone that they need to listen to a record on vinyl for whatever reason. Here’s why that’s true of Millions Now Living Will Never Die: because if you listen to it on CD, or as a string of mp3s, you don’t have to get up and flip it over after “Djed.” “Djed” is an expansive, incredible vista, a journey through all of the things that the players on the record can think to take you through, through doors, across oceans, over deserts, through the air, into houses, through your very own ears. “Djed” is a masterpiece of composition, of production, and of playing. It takes all the best things from Jazz, all the best things from pre-digital production musics (dance music, ambient music, dub, et al), builds on tension and dynamics like a rock song, and in so doing is actually none of those things. It’s better than all of those things5. And so it’s appropriate to have to cross the room and turn it over, where there’s five more songs that play with the themes introduced by “Djed,” acting as the supporting documentation for side one’s overarching thesis statement. I suppose if you don’t have the record itself, you should pause after “Djed,” then walk in circles for a minute before you resume. Hell, if you’ve never heard it before you may find yourself doing so anyway.
Either/Or is the point at which “my favorite record of that year” meets more-or-less up with “my favorite record at the time”. I don’t remember how long after it came out I heard Either/Or, I do remember that it was pretty close. I had acquainted myself with Kill Rock Stars, mainly because I liked the label’s name, and Elliott Smith seemed like the artist on their roster at the time that was most “for me” (albeit only slightly moreso than Sleater-Kinney). It didn’t hurt that this was all around when Good Will Hunting came out, and his records (of which this was the most current at the time) were pretty easy to find as a result, which was a benefit when you lived in the middle of nowhere. It’s the last of his indie records, and so is the last of the records that has the quality of sounding like something found. Elliott Smith’s songs were always about the struggle – for varying values of “the struggle” – and Either/Or is the last time the record itself bore that out. Not that his later, more-produced records aren’t also great, merely that they change the dynamic from one where Elliott Smith is fighting recording limitations to one where he’s fighting the actual production.
1 leaving aside the fact that the song is obviously the same one that’s covered on the record, there’s also the fact that their “last page” feature was always called “Screen Door,” which is the final track on No Depression, and which pretty perfectly described the aesthetic they were going for. But this is to praise an album, not to nitpick a magazine.
2 it’s a little easier now, but even so a bunch of the greatest country bands on Earth are operating from a place of “authenticity” worshipping retrograde dumbness. I’ll save that bit for when I talk about Ryan Adams and/or Lambchop. More Spoiler Alert.
3 which is generally beside the point in and of itself, but it’s worth pointing out that my favorite story related to a member of Slint is actually that when David Pajo (Slint’s guitar player) left the band Tortoise (see below, continuing spoiler alert), they were unable to play the songs that he had developed with the band because nobody could figure out his guitar parts.
4 in part the calm, laid-back, declamatory flow that was exactly the opposite of the pervading style in New York street rap at the time, and which would go on to affect the style of both the Notorious BIG and Jay-Z, each of whom would, in turn, repay Nas the favor by starting feuds with him.
5 I realize that that sentence, properly parsed, makes it seem like I’m saying that “Djed” is better than all examples of all those genres. I’m pretty ok with that assertion.