What Does it Sound Like
Summerteeth gets the remaster and expansion work over. First released in March 1999 Wilco’s 3rd album (or 4th if you include the 1998 Mermaid Avenue collaboration with Billy Bragg) was a dramatic change of recording style for Jeff Tweedy and co. as previous albums had been recorded “as live” with little, if any overdubbing. This time however multiple overdubs were used with both Tweedy and Jay Bennett spending hours on the production and leading to bassist John Stirratt complaining that Wilco no longer felt like a band.
Both Tweedy and Bennett were fighting their own particular addictions at the time causing Tweedy later to admit there was “carnage in the lyrics”. Tweedy needed Bennett’s studio skills and obsessive character to rescue the songs, he gave him full licence and Bennett took full advantage, perhaps in the process gaining the impression that he had become an equal to Tweedy in the band, and in doing so planted the seeds that led to his eventual dismissal as seen in the documentary “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” which followed the bands recording of the follow up album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
It’s not easy to judge the level of remastering via a stream copy of the album but there is interest in the expanded content where you can follow the process of the evolution of the songs from rough and ready Tweedy with acoustic guitar, voice sounding distinctly grizzled, through to the first band demos of the songs, presumably played as live. There has been a copy of the “Summerteeth Demos” knocking around the dustier corners of the internet ever since the album was first released, to these ears only 3 tracks in this collection were part of the bootleg, “Pieholden Suite”, “My Darling” and a version of “She’s a Jar”. Interestingly there is a demo of “I’ll Sing It” which didn’t see a Wilco release but turned up on the 2014 release “Sukirae”, Tweedy’s album of songs recorded with his son Spencer.
With the 4 CD version of the release there is a double disc recording of a live show at the Boulder Theater, recorded on 1st November 1999 which showcases how the slick production of the album translated into live performance. Having seen Wilco live many times this was of particular interest to me because it shows how the live sound of the band has changed since this time. Granted that was always going to be the case, only Tweedy and Stirratt remain of the line-up for this show. Bennetts guitar drives the sound with energy and passion, Leroy Bach’s piano is high in the mix, his solo on How To Fight Loneliness is sublime.
The vinyl release is a 5 LP package that does not include the Boulder show but has a recording of a live in-store performance at Tower Records on 11th March 1999 titled “An Unmitigated Disaster”
What Does It All Mean
It’s a time capsule of a very difficult period for Tweedy, battling against addiction to prescription painkillers and the aftermath of an exhausting tour punctuated by anxiety attacks and disharmony within the band. It’s not hard to imagine that the decision to embrace new studio techniques over full band participation was in some way cathartic for Tweedy even if it did ultimately lead to the break up of his partnership with Bennett.
Goes Well With
The experience of hearing an album evolve from a home made idea to a polished performance.
Friday 6th November