No Depression

Band: Uncle Tupelo
Album: No Depression
Best song: “Whiskey Bottle” is a classic. The title track is amazing. “Factory Belt” is awesome. “Screen Door” is top-notch. Even with all those, “Graveyard Shift” is probably the best song on the record.
Worst song: “So Called Friend” isn’t great.

One of the things that surprised me so much about the Rolling Stone 500 list (to which I devoted an entire year, by the way) was the total and complete lack of respect the list gave to country music in all of its forms. I don’t say that as a fan of country music — I’m not — but rather as someone who knows a tiny bit about the history of rock and roll. To say country music has not influenced popular rock music is foolish, at best.

Still, country music forms are surpemely popular today. Taylor Swift, one of the most popular artists in 2009, sports a country pose often. Carrie Underwood and other such American Idol contestants have made their hay doing that genre of music. Christ, Garth Brooks was the most popular artist in the world for a bit.

I don’t tend like country music — I’ve stopped saying I don’t like any country — for the same reasons I don’t tend to like blue collar rock. I’m not a street fightin’ man and I’ve never worked in a factory (it should be said that the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen didn’t, either). I’ve never rode the range. I grew up in the suburbs, crushing on girls with glasses and worrying about college. This is why I identify with, like, Pavement.

Uncle Tupelo, however, is a band I love. It’s a love that’s a little bit layered. The aesthetic notion of the band is the preeminent reason. Taking as much from Hank Williams as they did from the Minutemen and the Stooges, Tupelo had a punk attitude. They took Johnny Cash’s devil-may-care attitude and wrote songs about the dead-ends of the industrialized midwest. While not my deal — again, father a dentist, mother a court administrator, not exactly blue collar — I do have some bleeding heart tendencies, so the plight of the downtrodden interests me. Certainly, Farrar’s lyics paint a robust picture of that life.

Moreover, I’m a big Wilco fan, with Jeff Tweedy being a huge part of Uncle Tupelo before, they, uh, imploded (story here). Tupelo was from, basically, the same town as ex-girlfriend (the Collinsville/Edwardsville/Bellville area) and toured around there, so my college radio station was one of the first stations to play Tupelo. Famously — at KCOU, at least — Tupelo thanks KCOU on a few of their album liners and Farrar and Tweedy have consistently (with their respective bands) played Columbia. I saw Wilco twice in college and Son Volt once.

Indeed, one of the famed songs — “Whiskey Bottle” — on No Depression references my college town (“Liquor and guns, the sign says quite plain” is a reference to the “liquor and guns” sign on Business Loop 70 in Columbia.). In addition to, essentially, being the pinnacle of indie outlaw country, No Depression is a lyrical revelation. Nearly every song sounds like Southern Illinois.

“Life Worth Livin'” has the existential dread of the area, with Farrar lamenting alcohol’s claming effect on a usesless life. “Screen Door” is a classic Tweedy composition, with him singing of the lack of a life outside the porch and the titular portal, as everyone is “equally poor.” “Whiskey Bottle” shows the ways people deal with life. “Factory Belt” laments and celebrates the opportunities of life. “Graveyard Shift” has the fantastic guitar riff, as Farrar mentions the “same old walls closing in” as the entire band opens up the punk rock fury.

Indeed, despite being recorded in a little over a week, the songs are artfully arranged. The punk rock elements of the band pepper “Outdone” as the cacophony of the breakdown leads to vocal interplay between Tweedy and Farrar. “Screen Door” is augmented by a great violin. The Carter Family cover — that’s the band showing some regard to history — works so well because it resonates on two levels. Before Kurt Cobain was recounting the depression of the suburbs, Farrar and Tweedy were arranging a song about the Great Depression into a modern retelling, implying the nature of boredom and depression in the modern age.

I don’t think I’m overreaching in saying that No Depression spawned a genre. Indeed, alternative country is sometimes called “No Depression Country”. A perfect debut and one you should also own.

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One Comment

  1. Bradford Pearson
    Posted January 11, 2010 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

    I probably listen to this album once a week.

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