For better and often worse, one of the most influential bands of the last decade has been Uncle Tupelo. Steeped in slacker twangs, bleary singing, and an earnest appreciation of American roots music, the Illinois band’s four albums (released between 1990 and 1993) pioneered the genre now known as alternative country (a.k.a. y’allternative or No Depression, the latter derived from the title of Uncle Tupelo’s first album). Uncle Tupelo thumbed their indie-rock noses at Nashville and took their cues from the wasted-on-the-way country rock of Neil Young and the Gram Parsons-led Flying Burrito Brothers. (As with the new generation of Mohawked punks, here was another batch of musicians who felt rock peaked in 1976.) Although Uncle Tupelo crumbled three years ago, their spirit lives on in a slew of bands, a magazine, even a cookbook.
If only Uncle Tupelo were a better influence. Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar, Tupelo’s leaders, had the backwoods-grunge look and sound down cold. But they barely seemed capable of writing a memorable song, preferring to get by on attitude and mood. The same goes for most of Uncle Tupelo’s peers and successors. Ten years of alt-country have produced only three minor gems: the Jayhawks’ winsome Hollywood Town Hall (1992), the Bottle Rockets’ rougher, sawdust-caked The Brooklyn Side (1994), and Trace (1995), the melancholic first album by Farrar’s post-Tupelo band, Son Volt. Even the sharpest alt-country feels cornball and conservative. (Wilco, Tweedy’s new group, suffer from a cloying smugness on their two albums, and Tweedy has taken to warbling like a leaner Jerry Garcia.)
Like the sounds emerging from the Americana scene into which they’re also lumped, Son Volt make music so determined to be pure, austere, and authentic — whatever that means at a time when rap and sample-driven techno could be called modern-day folk music — that they drain all the spark and emotion from their songs. The Jayhawks, who’ve been working at a rich blend of American musics for over a decade, never had that problem. In their songs and brotherly honey-and-sandpaper harmonies, singer-guitarists Mark Olson and Gary Louris wore their hearts on their flannel sleeves, making for music at once traditional and contemporary. With Olson gone for a solo career, the regrouped Jayhawks return, but as a more conventional rock band, on Sound of Lies.
The music can still have a breathtaking, across-the-great-divide sweep, and several tracks, like the sparkling ”It’s Up to You” and the delicate title song, recapture the group’s magic. But the Jayhawks mistake rock conventions like squealy guitar solos for innovation, and Louris’ songs tend toward the mewling or nasty. (In ”Think About It,” a woman commits suicide, and in ”Sixteen Down,” another mysteriously drowns. What is it with alt-country and dead females?) And boy, are those Louris-Olson harmonies missed — on his own, Louris’ choirboy sweetness is too slight to carry an album. Like the unfulfilled promise of No Depression itself, Sound of Lies is caught between two worlds — it’s a little bit wimpy country, a little bit wimpy rock & roll — and ends up lacking the power of either. It’s enough to make you cry in your Lite beer. B-