When a keyboard kicks out the melody ten seconds into the opening track, "Can't Stand It", of Wilco's latest album, two things become apparent. 1) The band is continuing to explore the pop sensibilities touched on with "Being There", and 2) underneath the joyful noise lies a sadness. There's something unsettling about singing along to the coda, "Your prayers will never be answered again." The exploration of emotional complexity through well crafted pop is at the center of the Beach Boys masterpiece "Pet Sounds", and with "Summer Teeth" Wilco has come close to reaching that level of excellence. Wilco is the band born out of the ashes of Uncle Tupelo, who many regard as the trailblazer of the current alt.country movement, and lead singer Jeff Tweedy is seen as the band's main creative force. 1996 saw the release of the genre-busting double disc "Being There", which took the band beyond the scene Tweedy helped create. "Summer Teeth" takes them even further.
Pictures of the band show each of them in isolation in boring ordinary locations, not looking at the camera and not looking at one another when pictured together, modern day Hopper portraits conveying all the silent despair of that artist's great works. Within the songs a similar portrayal of isolation and detachment is depicted through the words and music. A quick survey of the repeated phrases, like the already mentioned coda from the opening track, reveals several examples.
Speakers speaking in code ("Can't Stand It")
Maybe all I need is a shot in the arm ("A Shot in the Arm")
What you once were isn't what
You want to be anymore ("A Shot in the Arm")
Just smile all the time ("How to Fight Loneliness")
It's just a dream he keeps having
And it doesn't seem to mean anything ("Summer Teeth")
Searching for a home ("Via Chicago")
"Via Chicago" is a good example of how the music will convey the same feelings. The song begins with a lone guitar slowly strumming. Other instruments join in, but soon the wail of feedback intrudes and never goes away, though sometimes faint, and is always out of step with the melody. The other instruments fall in and out of the mix until the entire band crumbles into a aimless racket, leaving the wailing feedback to trail off to the ending in isolation. Tweedy's voice is equally dry and detached with barely a hint of emotion. On the other hand, lyrically, the song begins, "I dreamed about killing you again last night/And it felt alright to me", and when sung over a sparse soundscape in an unaffected manner it is quite startling.
Please don't get the impression that "Summer Teeth" is depressing or disturbing. On the contrary, it is complex and diverse, full of catchy tunes and spirited musical arrangements. Shades of the Beach Boys, Buffalo Springfield, the Beatles, and, as usual, Graham Parsons color the compositions. Multiple layers of keyboards and percussion, mostly by Jay Bennett, provide rich textures to expand the pop sensibilities and complex moods that populate the record. Tweedy's voice is sweet, but with a touch of whiskey soaked gruffness. Some of the songs express feelings of confidence and hope. "My Darling" is sung to a small child complete with the promise to "keep all the bad dreams away", and "Nothing'severgonnastandinmyway(again)" contains the declaration "We'll find a way regardless/To make sense out of this mess."
Three songs, besides the already mentioned "Via Chicago", stand out as being particularly strong. "Pieholden Suite" is very reminiscent of the mini pop symphonies of Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks. In less than 3 1/2 minutes, the song contains three distinct movements beginning with only the cry of an organ which stays throughout acting as a seam to hold the pieces together. A wash of strings appears in the second movement, and the suite finishes with a section featuring banjo and trumpet. A brief interlude separates the three sections. The melody is nothing special, but the musical arrangement, though simple, is a clever piece of pop music. As is track 16, an uncredited song (call it "I'm the Boy") that brings to mind an entire history of power pop. From the Beach Boys to Nick Lowe to the Ramones, it's all there tucked into its harmonies, twangy guitar, and sing along melody. Also present is a hint of the future as the song fades to the sound of a sampled or synthesized human voice.
Another hidden track is an alternate version (slightly shorter and with a less dense arrangement) of "A Shot in the Arm". It is a welcome return of the album's finest track. The band creates a Phil Spector wall of sound, but uses the disparate sounds of an acoustic guitar and a synthesizer as a point of focus. This dynamic arrangement is combined with imaginative lyrics ("The ashtray says/You were up all night") and a strong melody. It's a wonderful song, the kind we all wish would be played on the radio, but we know never will. Well, do yourself a favor and get a copy of "Summer Teeth" so you too can hear this fine piece of work from Wilco.