The Phantom Tollbooth
June 1999 Pick of the Month

Summer Teeth
Artist:  Wilco
Label: Warner Bros.
Time: 15 tracks/58:46 min.

A funny thing happened to Wilco's frontman, Jeff Tweedy, when his previous band Uncle Tupelo broke up: he began to delve into the rich history of rock with the same vigor that Tupelo had explored the origins of country music. The albums that emerged from this exploration sounded not so much like artistic statements as they did a resurrection. Wilco had brought life to the Frankenstein of rock music. Unfortunately, much like the original lumbering zombie of Mary Shelley's creation, the band's actions and efforts have also been misunderstood.

Despite the obvious rock sound, the music buying public has insisted on pigeon-holing the band as alt. country. With the release of Summer Teeth, however, only the deaf can continue to impose the No Depression moniker on Tweedy and Co. The best description of Summer Teeth musically is to call it a cousin of Pet Sounds that was born 15 years later. A lush, 70's sound saturates the album; from the opening strains of "Can't Stand It" to the closing bars of "In a Future Age," the listener gets the uncanny feeling that he or she has heard each song before.

Each song harks to a musical wonderland, from a time before disco ruined popular music. To fully do justice to the timeless feel of Summer Teeth is impossible, but songs like "A Shot in the Arm" and "ELT" infect the listener with their poppiness. When Tweedy states bluntly "you've changed," in the latter it seems as if the music says it as well. "Pieholden Suite" and "How to Fight Loneliness," on the other hand, have a quiet, somber majesty. Notably, the horns at the end of the former are like an old friend returning. The whole album sounds lived in, and as if it were specifically recorded for night driving.

One difference between this album and Wilco's previous offering, Being There, is the presence of various 70's synth sounds like those you might find on an old Cars album. Whereas Being There contained a few dull moments, Summer Teeth maintains an unusually high song quality throughout the album--two-thirds of the songs have gotten stuck in my head at one point or another. The title track, in particular, is amazingly catchy. One can't help but sing along when Tweedy croons "it's just a dream he keeps having, and it doesn't seem to mean anything."

Which is as good a description as any of the lyric writing. Tweedy has said in interviews that the words he wrote for the songs on Summer Teeth were pretty much random thoughts that came into his head. Indeed, the whole album sounds like a dream put to music. Parts of it are poignant, as when Tweedy sings "just smile all the time" in "How to Fight Loneliness," and parts are disturbing, as when he sings "I dreamed about killing you again last night, and it felt alright to me" in "Via Chicago." Of course, it's hard to avoid the feeling that Tweedy is playing around with his audience's reactions when he asks in the next song, "ELT," "Oh, what have I been missing, wishing you were dead?" While this approach to lyric writing has its moments, there aren't any really powerful lines that stand out like Tweedy's yowl of "I want to thank you all for nothing; I want to thank you all for nothing at all" on Being There. Although the words still carry meaning, Summer Teeth is a lyrical regression from the band's previous work.

Wilco changes moods as smoothly as any artist out there, and even if the lyrics aren't as moving as one would expect, Summer Teeth is one of the better CDs to come out in recent months. Is it too early to start thinking about the album of the year?

By Glenn Harper  (5/1/99)

It's time to stop referring to Wilco as "the band with that guy who used to be in Uncle Tupelo." With Summerteeth, Jeff Tweedy and his cohorts establish themselves among the first tier of not just the No Depression crowd, but rock music, period. Leading the listener down a path that is familiar yet fresh, this album is a roots-rock OK Computer.  The sound of steel guitar on "ELT" is joined by spaced-out keyboards, and lush pop sounds surround disturbing thoughts like "Our prayers will never be answered again" ("I Can't Stand It"), with nothing sounding out of place. The sky is the limit now for Wilco, and with Summerteeth, they're already soaring.

Brett MacAlpine (5/11/99)

Much of Summerteeth's sleight-of-hand success hinges on turning down the band's former alt-country twang in favor of rootsy retakes of Beach Boys and Beatles sounds (particularly Pet Sounds and Sgt. Peppers...). Although you mustn't underestimate the influence of The Turtles, The Byrds, and other wonders of the Sixties. Thoroughly lush, utterly catchy, and possessed of surprising pop confidence, Wilco's latest is as nearly flawless an album as any released so far this year. And perceptible, melancholy moods support such memorable, satirical stand-out lines as:

Summerteeth could afford to be a wee bit more compelling and comprehensible lyrically, but the overall ambience proves that perfection can't be far outside Wilco's grasp.

Steven S. Baldwin   9/3/99