Tickets went on sale Wednesday for the A&O Ball, headlined by Chicago rock band Wilco and opened by New York-based garage rockers French Kicks. Students lined up in Norris to score tickets for the May 11 show at Patten Gym, the line stretching into and around the various halls of the student center. With Wilco generating considerable buzz around campus, it is only right to give a brief background on a band dubbed by some as “the best American band today” before they hit Evanston in the middle of May.
Wilco emerged from the ashes of another famous group, alt-country rockers Uncle Tupelo. Co-lead singer Jeff Tweedy split off from co-singer Jay Farrar (who later formed Son Volt) and brought with him the entirety of Uncle Tupelo’s players, forming a new band named after military slang for “will comply.” In 1995, the group released their debut album, A.M., a not-so-far departure from the alt-country sound mastered by Uncle Tupelo. That album is one of Wilcos’ most debated among fans: Some decry it for not branching off enough from Uncle Tupelo’s country-tinged rock, while others hold that A.M. was an enjoyable collection of rock songs and that the people in the other camp were just being dicks about it.
The group mixed their sound up on their follow-up double disc, Being There. The album’s 19 songs ranged from Nashville-tinted rockers to emotional ballads to flat-out rockers. Hailed by critics upon release, Being There features some of the group’s finest tunes (“Misunderstood,” “Outtasite (Outta Mind)”) all while renovating the group’s sound to a more mainstream rock style. Tastemakers Pitchfork Media initially brushed off the album, labeling it with a so-so 6.8 (out of 10), but reevaluated the album in the ’00s and placed it at number 88 on their list of the top 100 albums of the 1990s.
Tweedy and Co. first dabbled with the electronics found on future releases with 1999’s excellent Summerteeth. Moving further away from the country sound and embracing the pop-rock stylings of ’60s bands, Wilco crafted a near-masterpiece of fist-pumping songs buoyed by the most sinister lyrics Tweedy’s ever penned. The trippy “She’s a Jar” ends with the eerie line “with feelings hid / she begs me not to hit her,” while the album’s most country-aping track, “ELT,” opens with the lines “I should have been listening / to every word you said / oh, what have I been missing / wishing, wishing that you were dead.” Still, abusive lyrics aside, Summerteeth captures the band at its most dreamy (the title track), its most melancholy (“How to Fight Loneliness”), its most Velvet Underground (“Shot in the Arm” – take a guess what it’s about) and possibly its best (the gorgeous “Via Chicago,” maybe the best song the group has ever recorded).
And somehow, they went and one-upped themselves. After a drawn-out label dispute with Reprise Records, the seminal Yankee Hotel Foxtrot saw release in the spring of 2002. Produced by the famed underground musician Jim O’Rourke, the album integrated feedback, static and radio recordings into Wilco’s formula, producing classic songs like the drunken lament of “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” and the dusk-fading-to-night “Poor Places.” At its core, though, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot captured classic rock sound and juiced it up with some laptop flourishes. The best songs are the tunes that just rock out loud (“War on War,” “Heavy Metal Drummer”) or strip down to get melancholy (“Radio Cures,” “Jesus Etc.”). The album’s finest moment, though, is the downtrodden “Ashes of American Flags,” an achingly beautiful tearjerker, culminating in Tweedy’s devastated line “All my lies are only wishes / I know I would die if I could come back new.” Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is considered a masterpiece, one of the best albums of this young decade (rightfully so) and the band’s best moment.
Following up their masterwork wasn’t going to be easy, and it showed. The band shuffled out old members for new ones and Tweedy entered rehab for drug abuse. Still, Wilco released A Ghost is Born in 2004 to generally positive reviews. Continuing the electronic leanings of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, their latest caught the band slightly more confused, with the computer sounds not fitting as smoothly with the rock as before (especially on album-killer “Less Than You Think,” which features ten minutes of unbearable static representing the headaches Tweedy felt while on drugs). Still, the LP featured some choice cuts, such as the upbeat “Theologians,” the simple beauty of “Muzzle of Bees” and, most of all, the piano-driven rocker “Hummingbird.” The world loved A Ghost is Born, making it Wilco’s highest charting album and a recipient of two Grammies.
On May 15, Wilco will release Sky Blue Sky, their sixth full-length album. The group’s played the album before, and the entire thing is available on Wilco’s official site. I’m guessing a fair amount of the songs played at the A&O Ball will be from their new album, so start listening up.