Cori Taratoot

When Uncle Tupelo split, I sided with Jay Farrar. Weird right?



City: Portland, Oregon
Venue: Roseland Theater
Date: 2004-11-11

In May of 1997, when Wilco came to Portland, I walked out after three songs. I could tell from the opening tune, the stinging, eight-verse screamer "Misunderstood", that Jeff Tweedy wanted out of his alt-country prison. But I wasn't sold. Touring on Being There, the band's second record, Wilco was enjoying -- and maybe even despising -- the overeager praise of critics and promoters who introduced them as "the best band in America". Not the best band in America. Not yet. One-half of Uncle Tupelo's defunct songwriting team, Jeff Tweedy had a lot to prove. Jay Farrar had broken up Uncle Tupelo, a beloved, under-the-radar band that performed country-punk rock originals next to Ramones covers and Carter Family tunes, and Farrar seemed likely to inherit Uncle Tupelo's "alt-country" throne. His presence in the band far outshined Tweedy's, who took the position of sideman, second guitar, the George Harrison who wrote a good tune now and again. With Wilco, a vehicle for Tweedy's original compositions, this sideman hesitated to address life as he now knew it -- a life left empty by the demise of the only true collaboration he'd ever known (Farrar and Tweedy were born in the same Illinois hospital, went to the same high school, etc.). Thus, Wilco's first record, A.M. rang hollow, impersonal, cavalier, and soulless. Maybe it was a self-consciousness that accompanied being forcibly thrust front-and-center. Maybe the spotlight was on Jeff Tweedy prematurely. Farrar's new band, Son Volt, didn't have the raw anger and damage of Tweedy/Farrar compositions, but their first record, Trace, did have heart. Standing next to it, Wilco's A.M. sounded like a band shamelessly grasping for radio play. So clearly, when Uncle Tupelo split, I sided with Jay Farrar. Still, Being There grew on me over time and Summerteeth scratched my Brian Wilson itch, promising interesting times ahead. Meanwhile, Son Volt's first record ended up being their only recording I could love. For whatever reason, I refused to give Wilco another chance as a live act. That is, until 2001's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot stabbed me in the heart and opening my eyes wide. Leave it to Wilco to write a 9/11 record, maybe the only one that really mattered, before 9/11 even happened. So tonight, when Tweedy steps up to the mic in Portland, Oregon (playing a venue which by now Wilco knows intimately -- the Roseland Theater, home to Wilco shows four out of the last five years), recognition of the first lines of YHF's "Ashes of American Flags" rolls through the crowd and I am not alone as relief turns into yelling as the song climaxes:
I would like to salute
The ashes of American flags
And all the fallen leaves
Filling up shopping bags
A final verse perfectly resonant. We are, after all, sunk in post-election darkness, resigned to another four years of what looks an awful lot like fascism, wrestling with what it means to be American, wrestling with ourselves. It's classic Tweedy: an opening verse skimming the surface ("I could spend three dollars and 63 cents/ On Diet Coca-Cola and unlit cigarettes"), a second verse muttering and cursing ("I wonder why we listen to poets/ When nobody gives a fuck"), and a bridge masking as a chorus in a line transcendent but seemingly disconnected from the rest of the song: "I know I would die if I could come back new". The next song is just as relevant. "Ashes" transitions effortlessly into "War on War", a prescient pop song from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot with a refrain that both warns the enemy and reminds the singer: "You're gonna lose/ You have to lose/ You have to learn how to die." The crowd is transfixed. The video display and light show together bathe the place in blue. Between songs, Tweedy reminds us of his politics. "This one's dedicated to people who think stem cell research is worse than dropping bombs," he says over the opening chords to "Theologians" from the new record, A Ghost is Born. This isn't the same Wilco that toured on Being There; it's not the same Wilco that recorded Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Other than Tweedy, the only original member still around is bassist John Stirratt. Adding uber-guitarist Nels Cline on noise guitar, removing Jay Bennett from the mix, adding free-jazz drummer Glenn Kotche -- Wilco is now a band with chops, a band integrating complex technology into a mix born from a purist's love of Gibson acoustic guitars and the sound of brushes on snare drums. Much like Radiohead, Wilco is reckoning with what it means to be alive, to be musicians, to be awake as a rock band in the 21st century. At Portland shows in 1996 and 1997, Wilco leaned on Uncle Tupelo songs ("Gun" and "The Long Cut") and covers (The Replacements, Neil Young, David Bowie) to fill out their set and keep the audience engaged. Tonight, 18 out of 24 songs are from Wilco's last two records. A Ghost is Born gets most of the attention; it's a difficult album to love. Gone are the pop songs with singable choruses; Tweedy is indulging himself with twisting, wrecked guitar solos that can alienate even the most rabid Wilco fan. Tweedy doesn't need to cover an Uncle Tupelo song (though it would no doubt be welcomed) or pay homage to his heroes -- although the show ends with a phenomenal cover of Blue Oyster Cult's "(Don't Fear) The Reaper", cowbell and all -- to win the crowd over to his newest vision of what it means to love rock 'n' roll. Sure, if you left Wilco behind in the mid-'90s and returned to them tonight for a reintroduction, the band might be unrecognizable. But considering what's happened to America in the past few years and considering that if Wilco is anything, they are a truly American band, a keen listener can't help but notice Jeff Tweedy's old signature inside the sonic maelstrom that is today's Wilco. It's all there: the sensitive heart, the stream-of-consciousness lyrical leaps, that raging anti-war stance (found in Uncle Tupelo covers like CCR's "Effigy" and Robyn Hitchcock's "I Wanna Destroy You"). In 1997 critics said that Wilco was the greatest band in America. The praise was premature. In 2004 there is no doubt: Wilco defines what it means to be a 21st century American band. No one else even compares.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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