Wilco hopes to ride pop to the top
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By Donna Freydkin
(CNN) -- When Wilco went to work on its third album, "Summer Teeth," some two years ago, the band's members had two goals -- to experiment with sounds in the studio and make some pop songs really happen.
Not exactly what you'd expect from a somewhat category-defying band that's been dubbed everything from alt-country to roots rockers. But as Wilco's principal songwriter and vocalist Jeff Tweedy will be the first to say, "Summer Teeth" is little more than a roots-driven, unadorned and achingly honest pop album.
And perhaps with its inviting pop sensibility, "Summer Teeth" will wipe out any residual notions that Wilco is a country band. Tweedy, at least, says he hopes so. And his reluctance to be roped in with country bands is understandable, given that former band-mate Jay Farrar now heads up alt-country darlings Son Volt.
"I've never considered us a country band," says Tweedy. "Even after this record, people still call us a country band. Have they listened to this record?"
No cheatin' hearts
Even with the genre-bending advent of pop country, you'd be hard-pressed to find anything remotely Grand Ole Opry-ish on "Summer Teeth." Wilco, in fact, seems to embrace pop full force, especially on the brisk "Can't Stand It," the darker "She's a Jar" and the upbeat "When You Wake up Feeling Old."
But perhaps the catchiest little ditty on the album is the brisk "Nothing'severgonnastandinmyway (Again)," which Tweedy points to as the album's most perfectly realized pop tune.
"I don't know if we're a rock band, because that connotes a lot of things," he says. "'Summer Teeth' is a dark pop record, but as a band we don't try to define ourselves with a style."
Maybe because of the more listener- and radio-friendly tunes on the album, the band's label, Reprise, expects "Summer Teeth" -- out since March -- to do twice as well as Wilco's previous effort, the 1996 release, "Being There." That one sold 147,000 copies, according to SoundScan, a computerized tracking service that monitors 65 percent of retail music sales in the United States.
As if the heightened expectations weren't enough, R.E.M. has tapped Wilco, along with Spacehog and Mercury Rev, to open a series of dates on R.E.M.'s North American summer tour.
Tupelo to mermaids
Wilco was formed from the ashes of influential rock-blues and country-punk outfit Uncle Tupelo, which Tweedy and Farrar co-founded in Illinois. Twelve years and four albums later, Farrar bailed to form Son Volt. The remaining band members -- Tweedy, guitarist-bassist John Stirratt, drummer Ken Coomer and stringman Max Johnston -- reemerged as Wilco.
The band released its debut album, "A.M.," in 1995, and followed it up the next year with the sprawling rock double-album "Being There."
Despite a relentless touring schedule, the band members found time for side projects, most notably their collaboration with Billy Bragg on the 1998 "Mermaid Avenue," a collection of previously unrecorded and unfinished Woody Guthrie songs that nabbed a Grammy nomination for best contemporary folk album. Tweedy, who calls the work with Bragg "a piece of cake," also managed to tour with Golden Smog, which includes members of the Jayhawks and Soul Asylum.
And while playing shows and other gigs, the band took a year and a half to record "Summer Teeth." Most of the recording was done in Austin and Chicago, the musicians as usual writing, producing and performing all the material themselves.
"We try to honestly reflect what we're like," Tweedy says. "You evolve and change over 10 years, and you try and make the music reflect that."
"We've always tried to make records that would surprise us," he says. "This time around, we experimented in the studio and it seemed like a fun way to go. We had no deadlines, so we kind of went nuts."
More than anything, the album is made up of melodic, pretty tunes that, on first listening, sound personal. It might be easy, for example, to call the album confessional, considering such lyrics as these from "We're Just Friends": "Over and over and over again / I try to make amends; / For everything I've done wrong; / My whole world spins."
But Tweedy says the lyrics are nothing more than just words.
"Some of the lyrics are personal, but most of them are from deep in my subconscious," he says. "I don't have that much connection to them, except that they feel good to sing. The only reason I write lyrics is so I have something to sing."
After more than 20 years of making music, the slightly grubby, ultra-mellow Jeff Tweedy insists he's content with just having that "something to sing" and an audience to listen. He says he doesn't worry about alienating fans who have come to expect something a tad more twangy.
"We're content to stay on the path we're on. We've been around for a long time, we can keep making records. Each record sells a little bit more than the last, and somehow that's OK with the record company. If we had a major fluke, like a big radio hit, that would be fun, but I don't see that happening.
"We don't worry about where we're going, but just trying to enjoy where we are."
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