The Over/Under: Wilco

wilco545When we last saw our friend Roob (you’d know him if you saw him), he was catching 10 tons of flak from Guided By Voices fans for expressing his opinion about some GBV songs. This time, he decided to address the catalog of a band whose fans are only slightly less rabid. Here are his five most overrated and five most underrated Wilco songs. Duck, Roob!

:: The Five Most Overrated Wilco Songs
1. “Hummingbird” (2004)
Maybe it’s the fact that the revered “Hummingbird” starts out sounding like a Ben Folds outtake. Or maybe it’s how a minute in, the thing just kind of falls apart before being put back together—and then falls apart again. Or maybe it’s how any song that includes a reference to a hummingbird inevitably reminds me of that ghastly Seals & Crofts hit from the early ’70s. Or maybe it’s how the overblown coda just doesn’t fit the rest of the song. Whatever the reason, “Hummingbird” is nails on a blackboard.

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2. “Impossible Germany” (2007)
Nels Cline is a gifted guitar player who came to rock music later in life after devoting most of his career to improv, jazz and experimental styles. Now that he’s here, Cline seems determined to make up for lost time. Hence, his 146-minute guitar solo in the middle of “Impossible Germany.” The only redeeming part of the song is the blocky chords that resolve Cline’s meandering solo and lead up to the 71-minute coda. So Cline has managed something amazing here: creating a guitar solo that is so dull and aimless it’s impossible to listen to it without literally begging the solo to end. It usually doesn’t work.

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3. “Via Chicago” (1999)
“Via Chicago” may be a powerful song, but I can’t listen to it anymore. At least not the Summerteeth version. The problem is that Jeff Tweedy’s vocal is so damn overwrought, it just overwhelms some pretty good lyrics and music. Listen to the Tweedster sing, “I rest my head on a pillowy star.” His voice is just oozing with gravitas. Painful. I knew I had a problem with “Via Chicago” when I started fast-forwarding past that line. Good song. Excruciating vocal.

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4. “What Light” (2007)
What crap.

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5. “Theologians” (2004)
“Theologians,” sings Tweedy, “don’t know nothing about my soul.” Which prompts this question: Why should they? Why the hell—excuse me, why the heck—would scholars who study religion and spirituality know or care about the soul of a pop singer from Belleville, Ill.? It’s like if somebody wrote a song that had the lyrics, “Architects don’t know nothing about my house.” Well, yeah, they don’t. They don’t claim to. As absurd as the whole premise of the song is, Tweedy continues, “I’m an ocean.” Really? Maybe we can find an oceanographer somewhere? Anybody?

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:: The Five Most Underrated Wilco Songs
1. “Company In My Back” (2004)
“Company In My Back” just may be the best Wilco song ever recorded, and you never hear anything about it. Well, hell, I never hear anything about any Wilco songs. Other than Phil (you’d know him if you saw him), my friends all listen to Counting Crows. (What’s that all about? Seriously. Counting Crows? They sucked even when they were good.) Anyway, “Company In My Back” is a little gem, one of those songs you hear a bunch of times and doesn’t quite make an impression on you—and then maybe the 41st time, it just hits you that this is one of the finest damn things you’ve ever heard and why the hell didn’t you realize it a month ago? Those kinds of songs, with powerful time-release qualities, always turn out to be the most enduring. “Company In My Back” is also one of those rare tracks whose choruses are just as strong—if not stronger—than the verse. All in all, an unknown nugget from deep within the Wilco catalog.

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2. “A Shot In The Arm” (1999)
“The ashtray says you were up all night.” That’s the best damn opening line of any Wilco song. Incredibly vivid image in just eight words. In fact, the entire first verse is pretty damn brilliant. Consider this: “Your pillow wept and covered your eyes and you finally slept while the sun caught fire.” Devastating stuff. What’s really killer is the two-word mini-couplet that separates the first two verses; simply, “You’ve changed.” What truly makes “A Shot In The Arm” such a mighty track is how such a crushing song musically bounces along so merrily. I love that kind of stuff.

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3. “Heavy Metal Drummer” (2002)
The Wilco message board, Via Chicago, is a creepy kind of place. Have you seen it? The Tweedites who congregate there all think alike. They love Bon Iver. They hate Son Volt. They love She & Him. They hate Son Volt. They love Bonnie “Prince” Billy. They hate Son Volt. And they all hate “Heavy Metal Drummer.” They don’t just hate it, they look down on it. Sneer at it. It’s just not sophisticated enough. Come on, this is supposed to be Wilco, all erudite and elusive and vague and deconstructing the music. They hate “Heavy Metal Drummer” because it’s just a dumb, simple, poppy song about hanging out with your friends watching cover bands play the hits and drinking warm beer and being teenagers. Well, you know what? Dumb, simple and poppy songs can be a damn good thing. Whenever I hear “Heavy Metal Drummer,” I picture Tweedy and Jay Farrar as miserable 17-year-olds decked out in their finest flannel standing out there on the landing, and it makes me happy. This might be the most-hated song among hardcore Wilco fans, which is a shame.

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4. “Box Full Of Letters” (1995)
Tweedites hate AM almost as much as they hate “Heavy Metal Drummer.” It’s not innovative, it’s not deep, it’s not groundbreaking. AM showed up just a couple years after Uncle Tupelo’s Anodyne (an absolute classic) and a year before Being There (a brilliant record), but it holds its own with a stack of straight-ahead tracks that sound incredible more than a decade later. I could have easily included “It’s Just That Simple” (co-written—and sung—by bassist John Stirratt), “Pick Up The Change” or the ridiculous “Casino Queen” (which I love nonetheless). But “Box Full Of Letters” gets the nod, both because it sounds so damn good and I love the chords and the little guitar solo and also because of the lyrics, which I’ve always assumed were a final goodbye to Farrar. When I hear the line, “I’ve got a lot of your records in a separate stack,” I always wonder what records Farrar left behind. When I hear the line, “Wish I had a lot of answers,” I realize that Tweedy really never did understand why Farrar broke up Uncle Tupelo. When I hear the line, “You’ll come back again,” I always think, “Hey, maybe one day I’ll see Uncle Tupelo one more time blasting away at ‘Gun’ and ‘Looking For A Way Out.’” You never know.

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5. “Remember The Mountain Bed” (2000)
Technically not a Wilco song, but a track from the second Mermaid Avenue project, with lyrics by the legendary Woody Guthrie and music by Tweedy and the underrated Jay Bennett. Guthrie’s words are so achingly beautiful and incomprehensibly sad that I can’t imagine trying to put them to music. But Tweedy and Bennett pulled it off in astonishing fashion with a simple chord progression that lets the words breathe but is also beautiful enough to serve as an equal to the lyrics. A masterpiece.

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33 Comments

  1. Pear
    Posted March 3, 2009 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    Bah, whatevs.

  2. Chris
    Posted March 3, 2009 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    what crap is hilarious.

  3. dcarter
    Posted March 3, 2009 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    HA HA!! Why anyone would take an article seriously that uses not just an out-dated phot but a ridiculously out-dated photo, is inexplicable.

    The guy is a hack writer. I doubt if he even believes half of what he wrote. “What light? What crap!” Please. The guy probably likes the song but couldn’t resist a jr. high-level pun. ‘146-minute guitar solo. 71-minute coda’ Again, lazy, easy puns. No wonder the guy likes pop hooks (not that there’s anything wrong with that). “Theologians don’t know nothing about my soul Why would they, blah, blah, blah.” I am sure that the writer knows that Tweedy means that theologians professing to speak for all of us have no idea about us. Again, cheap, sophomoric and easy. “The Wilco message board, Via Chicago, is a creepy kind of place. Have you seen it? The Tweedites who congregate there all think alike. They love Bon Iver. They hate Son Volt. They love She & Him. They hate Son Volt. They love Bonnie “Prince” Billy. They hate Son Volt. And they all hate “Heavy Metal Drummer.” Blah, blah, blah”. Complete BS. I have spent quite a bit of time there and anyone, the writer included, that has spent time there knows that ‘they all think alike and hate SV and Heavy Metal Drummer’ is patently false. In truth, I rarely see SV maligned and when they are, other VCers defend them. Heavy Metal Drummer, from my VC experience, is a beloved concert staple by the majority of VCers. The merits of various bands are debated there daily. But again, it is cheap, lazy and easy to bring up the tired old “ViaChicago is a cult” to get an positive response.

    I like the over/under concept and have no problem with honest Wilco criticism. But this article is just bad. Talk about trying to write a hit!

  4. dcarter
    Posted March 3, 2009 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    Chris, thanks for proving my point. I’m sure you think that Will Ferrell movies are hilarious.

  5. Dallas
    Posted March 3, 2009 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    Hate to be Captain Obvious here, but 4 of the 5 good songs were wrote before Jay Bennett got the boot, and 4 of the 5 bad songs are from after…pattern??

  6. moondog
    Posted March 3, 2009 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    Could use an updated photo with the article.

  7. tippos
    Posted March 3, 2009 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    Best opening line of a wilco song – “when you’re back in your old neighborhood/the cigarettes taste so good…”

    The ashtray line comes close second. Time for a smoke break.

  8. bill
    Posted March 3, 2009 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    why don’t you call this “5 Songs I Like and 5 Songs I Don’t”? what universe do you like in where Impossible Germany, What Light, etc are overrated? i expected this to thought provoking. instead, i found it “cornified!”

  9. Posted March 3, 2009 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

    I’m going to have to echo the comment made earlier. I have really enjoyed this segment thus far but this writer is way, way off. In what universe can you claim “Heavy Metal Drummer” and “Shot in the Arm” underrated while “Company in my Back” is “a deep unknown cut?!” Oh, you mean that deep unknown cut that’s found on two of the band’s seven proper albums? Here is a band with a treasure trove of b-sides and rarities and this guy is picking songs from its standard set list?
    This writer seems to be playing upon a unique curve in trying to incite (not well, mind you) the band’s fans instead of honestly gauging under/overrated Wilco songs, a concept that I would have loved to have seen tackled. Instead we get this idea that this “non-Tweedite” can come in and wow us with a fresh perspective. Just how is someone who isn’t that familiar with the band’s catalogue going to earn any credibility in his/her opinions making claims like this? Wouldn’t a certain sense of expertise regarding the band make something like this worth reading instead of some lame reactionary half-truths?

  10. Nick
    Posted March 3, 2009 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    I just started listening to Wilco, but I love Shot in the Arm and if it isn’t a popular song it damn well should be!

    Also, I don’t think impossible germany’s as good of a song as people are putting it to me.

  11. James DuBray
    Posted March 3, 2009 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    Your comments about “Via Chicago” are simply wrong.

    Most on ViaChicago are Son Volt fans. Shows and albums by Son Volt are discussed, if you would have actually done your research.

    Opinion on HMD is mixed on ViaChicago, but all Wilco fans love it live. Maybe you haven’t attended a show before, I don’t know.

    That being said, in the future, make sure to do your research before making broad generalizations.

  12. dan
    Posted March 3, 2009 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    Heavy Metal Drummer and Hummingbird are equally dumb, but the latter is the superior track. That violin line (or whatever it is) at the end is a very unusual hook, yet it’s great. It’s a great vocal from Tweedy and it’s just plain catchy. People who defend Heavy Metal Drummer always use the “You wouldn’t understand something as indelible as a simple pop tune.” Um, yes we would. Passenger Side is almost retarded, yet irresistable. Wilco have dozens of pop tunes that are stupid when you dig deep, but great to listen to. Unfortunately, Heavy Metal Drummer is not one of these songs. People hate it for a reason: It sucks. Not because they lack a certain appreciation for songs that are “dumb, simple, poppy”. Nobody is being an elitist. It’s just a bad song. Move on, Roob.

    PS – I will say that the Pollard/GBV stuff was mostly on the mark. So you’re not always wrong. Just when it comes to the great Hummingbird vs Heavy Metal Drummer. Also, I think Impossible Germany is one of the few gems off the new one, so cut it some slack.

  13. nbd
    Posted March 3, 2009 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    It may not the best article of all time…but who cares?

    It really is, just all about the music.

  14. Posted March 3, 2009 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

    My two cents…
    Everything on YHF is overrated.
    Via Chicago is a great song. I’m guessing Boob doesn’t like it because he’s listened to it so much. Summerteeth is probably not the Wilco-diehard’s favorite album, but it’s the only one I listen to from beginning to end.
    The first 5-6 lines of Misunderstood are poetry.
    California Stars (not technically a Wilco song) is still one of their best.

  15. Senator Tankerbell
    Posted March 3, 2009 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

    Nice, more shit stir-age. Lets see…Wilco, GBV, my guess for next up on the over/under list would be Pavement. Or perhaps Magnet’s beloved Wrens…one can never get enough Wrens coverage. “Impossible Germany” was a good call on this one, but “Heavy Metal Drummer” is by no means under-rated…that song got lots of love circa the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot days. And seriously, “Company In My Back?” That’s like the 11th best song on that album. I just hope the new album is better than the last one, cuz the last album was kinda like a big sack o’ poo.

  16. Posted March 3, 2009 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    All my Wilco friends love Heavy Metal Drummer, and I recall being arm in arm on the verge of tears in concert as we celebrated the memory of the innocence of youth to that song.

  17. tim
    Posted March 3, 2009 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

    ‘side with the seeds’ should be on the underrated list…perfect example of why they need Nels in the band.

  18. Jeff
    Posted March 3, 2009 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

    Impossible Germany. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve lost myself in that beautiful guitar solo that ends all too soon for me. Such is life. Gotta admit its humorous that what I find so compelling about a song is precisely what you can’t wait to end!

  19. Posted March 3, 2009 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

    Most underrated Wilco tracks are:

    The WHOLE of “A.M.”. All of it.

    -G.

  20. Chuckie B
    Posted March 3, 2009 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

    Via Chicago is indeed the creepiest fan board on the web. 1,000’s of WILCO fans who never heard of the band before 2001. Ever see the pictures on there from when a gang of those goons dressed up like people from Willy Wonka and went to a show at the Vic? YIKES!

    Saying all of that, this ‘article’ sucked.

  21. MattyC
    Posted March 3, 2009 at 10:48 pm | Permalink

    It seems like the writer just threw out a bunch of outrageous comments to get a some responses and prove people read his list. Well it worked. I’ve got only one word to say about his overrated list…WRONG!

  22. Scott Mc.
    Posted March 4, 2009 at 2:54 am | Permalink

    VC is legit.

  23. Luke Kramer
    Posted March 4, 2009 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    It appears as though Wilco fans are a little more rabid than you had thought. These comments remind me of a Star Wars convention or something… settle down fellows! I enjoyed your article and consider myself a Wilco fan. I am glad that you at least gave ‘It’s Just That Simple’ a nod. I have always thought that was a great song, one that is truly underrated.

  24. Chris
    Posted March 4, 2009 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    dcarter: you sound like you’d be fun to hang out with. then again, i already have hung out with you and well, not so fun.

  25. Magheeta
    Posted March 4, 2009 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    Funny stuff, even if I didnt agree with it. Love Via Chicago but thats a valid critique. Completely disagree with the comments on Impossible Germany. Mountain Bed should be on the top of the underrated list regardless of who wrote it.

    Writer is definitely trying to get people riled up, looks like it worked. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, even if its laughably bad.

  26. Stacy Budowsky
    Posted March 5, 2009 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    Jealous, much? Rewind, get some love and happiness going for yourself, then listen to Impossible Germany again!

  27. Ryan
    Posted March 8, 2009 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    I’m not quite sure how one can call AM underrated?? Being from the midwest, to be exact STL, most Wilco fans favorite album was/is AM. Just goes to show my “Box full of Letters,” Passenger Side,” “High,” and others from this album end up making it on the encore list at shows. Also, the fine majority of Wilco fans around here are huge fans of Son Volt as well. I find it hard to believe that any hardcore Uncle Tupelo fans could love one band but not the other.

  28. Tim
    Posted March 12, 2009 at 11:23 pm | Permalink

    I think the most underrated Wilco song is “Poor Places” and the most overrated Wilco song is “I’m The Man Who Loves You”.

    Poor Places is such a great song. I think the deepest song that Tweedy has ever written is On And On And On.

  29. Posted March 14, 2009 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    For the good laugh I had reading this article. Definitely a nominee for any comedy award.

  30. Posted April 15, 2009 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

    I think that anyone who’s ever caught Nels Cline in concert (especially with the Geraldine Fibbers) gets a rush out of Impossible Germany. Lyrically it seems like nonsensical shit, but Nels has a unique approach to extended soloing that transcends noodling. I think he rides the “jazz light” fence nicely without ever slipping over it and into lounge music. For me, a good song doesn’t neccessarily have to be cohesive from start to finish. I’d rather have a few nuggets of brilliance mingled in with mediocrity than an “above average” effort with nothing that absolutely floors you.

  31. griffin
    Posted July 29, 2010 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    Rather ironic that people pull the highnmighty card in re: Heavy Metal Drummer, considering that song is lamenting how Tweedy himself used to be a music snob.

  32. Tae
    Posted September 11, 2012 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    Totally agree with Heavy Metal Drummer. Reminder that Wilco used to play fun music (A.M.) before they took themselves so seriously. Via Chicago is a classic though

  33. Tina
    Posted December 17, 2013 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    Just saw this. . . Hilarious! Don’t agree with the overrated, but your opinion is yours. Especially when you made me laugh out loud with the hate Son Volt comments. So true and I’m totes guilty. Couldn’t agree more about Heavy Metal Drummer! Seriously, it’s so evocative. It takes me back to being a teenager. “Shiny, shiny pants and bleachblond hear. Double kick drum by the river in the summer,” is genius.