Wilco’s terrific Summerteeth—the group’s third album, which first appeared in 1999—expands to more than four times its original length in a recently issued deluxe edition. The clamshell-boxed set couples a remaster of the adventurous original record to a wealth of previously unreleased material, including two dozen demos and outtakes and a 26-song contemporaneous Boulder, Colorado, concert. An accompanying booklet includes an essay by Mojo editor John Mulvey that draws from new conversations with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and John Stirratt.
This is the record on which the group took a giant step away from their alt-country roots to embrace a rock vision that nods to influences like Big Star and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds while blazing new territory. It’s an exhilarating blend that benefits from Jay Bennett’s keyboards (especially Mellotron) and a variety of studio wizardry as well as Tweedy’s engrossing vocal work.
If you simply read a lyric sheet for Summerteeth, you might be inclined to stay away. Granted, the set includes “My Darling,” a touching song for Tweedy’s son, and the warm “Pieholden Suite,” but most of the album is filled with depressed talk and troubling imagery, much of which reportedly relates to the singer’s drug problems and difficulties in his marriage. The record begins with “I Can’t Stand It,” which proclaims, “You get so low, struggle to find your skin…your prayers will never be answered again,” and things rarely get any cheerier after that.
A relationship appears to be dissolving in “A Shot in the Arm” and “We’re Just Friends.” (“Over and over and over again, I try to make amends for everything I’ve done wrong,” Tweedy sings in the latter.) Even a song with a bright-sounding title like “I’m Always in Love” turns out to begin, “Why, I wonder, is my heart full of holes?” and in “Nothing’severgonnastandinmyway (Again),” Tweedy sings, “We’ll find a way regardless to make some sense out of this mess.”
Other tracks take you to even darker places. “She’s a Jar” includes the disturbing line, “She begs me not to hit her” while “Via Chicago” begins, “I dreamed about killing you again last night/And it felt alright to me.” Not exactly “All You Need Is Love.” And then there’s “ELT” (short for “Every Little Thing”): “I should’ve been listening to every word you said / Oh what have I been missing / Wishing, wishing that you were dead.”
At times, brash or discordant music underscores lyrics like these but on many of the tracks, including the aforementioned “She’s a Jar” and “Via Chicago,” Wilco belie their words with delicate sonic landscapes that are nothing short of gorgeous. Like, for example, Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, Summerteeth manages to turn pain into compelling music.
Moreover, the bonus material on this release represents essential listening for fans of the group. While generally not quite as good as the versions on the original album, the demo and alternate renditions on disc two prove consistently interesting and frequently represent major departures from the well-known recordings.
As for the two-hour 1999 concert that fills discs three and four, it finds the band in top form and includes most of the songs from Summerteeth plus a smattering of tunes from its predecessors, Being There and A.M. Also here are versions of a couple of tracks from Mermaid Avenue, the excellent 1998 album Wilco made with Billy Bragg that features Woody Guthrie lyrics.
David Huckfelt, Room Enough, Time Enough. This affecting second solo album from Minneapolis-based David Huckfelt sounds redolent of the work of his former group, the Pines. Like that indie trio, Huckfelt offers warm vocals, acoustic folk instruments, and atmospheric music that conjures up scenes of nature and feelings of harmony.
The singer/songwriter has championed Native American causes at least since 2012, when he met American Indian activist and poet John Trudell; and those causes remain a preoccupation on this record, which features indigenous artists Keith Secola and Jackie Bird and includes a reimagined version of the traditional “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie” that opens with a snippet from folk singer Joe Hickerson’s old rendition. Also on the menu: several likable originals plus covers of Secola’s “Book of Life,” Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye’s “Ghost Dance,” and Red Hayes and Jack Rhodes’s classic “A Satisfied Mind,” the latter with vocal support from the great Iowan folk singer Greg Brown.
Created during the pandemic and in the wake of the murder of George Floyd (a mile from Huckfelt’s home), this is a soothing and spiritual recording—just what the doctor ordered for these tough times.
Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.