Various Artists: For Anyone That's Listening: A Tribute to Uncle Tupelo
What the hell does Anna Fermin's Trigger Gospel got to do with Uncle Tupelo?
In what world does this sanitized, crisp version of the boys from Belleville's "Graveyard Shift" have anything in common with the muddy, raw energy of the blue-collar cow punk that Jeff Tweedy, Jay Farrar, and Mike Heidorn unleashed on the world in 1990?
In the liner notes to For Anyone That's Listening, a mostly listless and wholly unsuccessful attempt to tribute the band that dragged alt-country kicking and screaming into the realm of popular culture, Richard Byrne spells it out even better.
"If you've got a copy of Uncle Tupelo's groundbreaking 1990 record, No Depression (if you're holding this disc, there's an excellent chance that you do), take another look at the concert snap inside the CD," Byrne writes.
That's the first problem with this record. Roughly 90 percent of those interested in this disc do have that CD. And they likely have the remastered version released early this year. But when the first few bars of the antiseptic version of the tune by Anna Fermin of all people comes out of your stereo, you quickly realize that this song has little to do with either version.
But that's not all. Byrne continues, "Careful observers can glean a lot from that photo, which was taken in the now-vanished Cicero's Basement Bar in St. Louis, Missouri." He's right about that and goes on to describe the scene: Tweedy wearing a worn Broadway Joe's Ice Cream T-shirt; the packed crowd; Farrar's skull 'n' crossbones guitar strap; and Heidorn's glasses knocked sideways from the passionate hammering of his drum kit.
In those early days, before Tweedy went on to turn Wilco into a sort of post-rock, techno-folk experimental outfit and Farrar lost touch with the world, Uncle Tupelo was as vital a band as ever came out of the Land of Lincoln. They packed what seemed like decades of blue-collar frustration (though they were in their early 20s), a healthy amount of post-teen angst, and just enough heart and soul into songs that both embraced and rejected their small-town, Midwest roots. For those of us who grew up in that environment, in that time or somewhere near it, No Depression was a goddamn revelation. And "Graveyard Shift" was the opening salvo in a barrage of cut-to-the bone punk rock with a twangy twist.
If you thought REM or U2 or, hell, even the Replacements were breaking new ground, "Graveyard Shift" knocked you on your ass. This is what living where you lived was like, what you'd seen looked like, and what feeling like you feel felt like. They captured something not many American rock acts, save Bruce Springsteen, ever had. And sadly, after four records, they broke up. That's what makes this "tribute" record such a disappointment. Luckily, though, it doesn't appear to be the last installment in the Tupelo legacy -- just an unfortunate footnote.
But back to Anna freakin' Fermin. With her band, the unfortunately named Trigger Gospel, she rips the sweat and soul out of "Graveyard Shift" and dissects it down to its basics - the chords and the rhythm. But that's not what was special about Uncle Tupelo. The song structures, especially on No Depression, were basic. The words themselves didn't mean anything unless you sang them with a world-weary howl or husky despair. In Anna Fermin's hands, it belongs on a parody of the Mighty Wind soundtrack.
But it doesn't stop there. There's nothing about this disc that captures the dark energy of Uncle Tupelo. Maybe that's an unfair criticism. Maybe what I'm asking for is impossible. Still, this disc doesn't even come close to approximating that sound.
There's Peter Holsapple meandering through "Still Be Around", Meredith Ochs and the Damn Lovelys doing an all too lovely version of "True to Life", and Tom Roznowski's honky-tonk, piano dirge of a "Screen Door" -- all utter embarrassments for both the artists and the band they are trying to pay their respects to.
The bands that come closest to success are the ones that provide the most derivative covers -- the Shiners on "We've Been Had" and Porter Hall, TN on "Whiskey Bottle" -- or the most stripped-down numbers: Neil Cleary's "Looking for a Way Out" and Jason Wilber's "Black Eye" (the highlight of the record).
So maybe it's more of a fatal flaw with tribute records. Or maybe it's the artists chosen (the more likely culprit). Where are the bands more directly influenced? Where's Slobberbone or Grand Champeen (despite both bands' faults)? Maybe the point was that Uncle Tupelo's influence was widespread. Fine. But Anna Fermin's Trigger Gospel? Uncle Tupelo's legacy deserves a helluva lot more than that.