REVIEW album Old Subbacultcha Old Subbacultcha

First studio album from Uncle Tupelo (Wilco/Son Volt) gets the Legacy Edition treatment

Old Subbacultcha

Old Subbacultcha

The oft-lauded 1990 album 'No Depression' from Uncle Tupelo bristles with rowdy, cowpunk gusto but lacks the vocal punch to match


Uncle Tupelo - No Depression (Legacy Edition) (OUT 27TH JANUARY)

Having played together since their early teens, schoolmates Jay Fararr, Jeff Tweedy and Mike Heidorn apparently formed
Uncle Tupelo from the remnants of their previous band when the singer left for college. There's a certain romance to that, their dogged commitment to the rock and roll cause, higher education be damned, that’s hard not to admire even though on all accounts that bond would soon sour with the two principal songwriters and singers Fararr and Tweedy vying for control of the reins. Following hot on the heels of the demo tape
‘Not Forever, Just For Now’ that secured them their record deal,
‘No Depression’ was the band’s first studio album and an album I've oft heard referred to in hushed tones as
the seminal alt-country album. This Legacy Edition reissue containing both said album, the demo tape and other assorted rarities is therefore a more than timely opportunity to investigate, particularly given that herein presumably lie the early seeds that would ultimately spawn
Wilco whose 2002 release ‘
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ is one of this humble writer's all-time greats. There’s no doubt it's a spirited affair, the roots of their formative years in a garage punk band and the then incoming influence of early 90s grunge making for far more of a rabble-rousing listen than I'd anticipated, certainly more the cowpunk end of the alt-country spectrum than campfire pedal steel lamentation. It’s also a remarkably musically proficient racket for what was just a three-piece of twenty something whippersnappers; full of snap rhythms changes, frenetic picking, distorted punch and bass wallop. And whilst it is Tweedy’s subsequent catalogue of multi-layered alt-country symphonies that I'm familiar with it soon becomes apparent that in this initial rope-learning infancy he was very much playing second fiddle. Fararr handles the lion's share of the singing as well as guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle and harmonica versus Tweedy's rare lead vocal turns, bass and acoustic guitar and as a result to those unfamiliar with the former's output the success of
Uncle Tupelo will perhaps largely depend on how well you take to Fararr's gravel-thick country timbre. Which is something I struggle with - the more I listen to
‘No Depression’ the more I find myself wishing that someone was else was singing the songs (
*ahem* Tweedy). For there's no doubt that the melding of
Replacements-esque college punk rock with country yee-haw works as the album’s finest Tweedy-fronted moments attest from the
Mascis-like crunching guitars and rollicking bass line of
‘Train’ to the downbeat Springsteen acoustics and harmonica of
‘Screen Door’. Elsewhere though for all the musical thrills a-plenty in the album’s prevalent tone of country grunge I just can’t connect with Farrar’s vocals; his gnarly country enunciation and slight straining ultimately a distraction from the fine
Pogues meets the
Hold Steady shenanigans of
‘So Called Friend’ or the flatness of his delivery in the thrashing fun of
‘Outdone’. That the original demos of some of these songs are somehow more palatable when the vocals are more immersed in the music (the aforementioned
‘Outdone’) or on the album’s softer moments (the pedal steel and quiet-loud dynamics of the mournfully beautiful
‘Whiskey Bottle’ and the
Paul Westerberg rally cry of
‘Life Worth Livin’) is telling and only serves to heighten the nagging discomfort that there’s one heck of an album buried within
‘No Depression’ lost beneath the over-powering vocals of Fararr. So I can well appreciate that it’s probably deserving of its seminal alt-country status and the teasing glimpses of nascent Tweedy genius certainly reward the curious but for my part, I’m not quite sold I’m afraid.