Release Date: Sep 23, 2014
Record label: Anti
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
It’s a move worthy of the unpredictable ways of Wilco: it’s the 20th anniversary of the much-acclaimed Chicago-based outfit (critical shorthand demands that the term ‘the American Radiohead’ is dusted off at this point), and what do we get? A Jeff Tweedy solo album. Kind of. Having involved son Spencer on percussion duties throughout the demoing at Wilco’s Chicago H.Q., Wilco’s songwriter, sole original member and undisputed driving force decided to rope him in for the actual album as well, alongside - albeit in much less prominent roles - keyboardist Scott McCaughey and backing vocalists Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig from Lucius.
Faced with major upheaval, you naturally reach for the things that defined better times. For Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, whose wife is battling cancer, that meant collaborating with his drummer son Spencer and making a 20-track album to tackle his churning emotions. ‘Sukierae’ tracks the journey from shocked confusion (the craggy guitar of ‘Please Don’t Let Me Be So Understood’) through denial (‘Nobody Dies Anymore’) to despondency (“All my love is gone”, he husks on ‘Where My Love’), while closer ‘I’ll Never Know’ is all ghosts and ash.
After almost 30 years in music with his bands Uncle Tupelo and Wilco – and work in genres from alt-country to electronic psychedelia – Jeff Tweedy has finally made his first solo album, with his 18-year-old son Spencer on drums. Conceived as a double album, there’s something of the sprawling majesty of George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, while the mix of beauty and grit – and occasional glam-stomp – recalls early-70s John Lennon. Although the likes of Low Key are playfully autobiographical (“I’ve always been low key, you know me”), Sukierae is named after Tweedy’s wife, Sue (known as Sukie Rae), currently battling lymphoma.
In 1996, Jeff Tweedy and his then-iteration of Wilco used a sprawling and ambitious 19-song album to break free from the constraints of the alt-country tag that had continued to trail the still fairly new band formed in the wake of Uncle Tupelo’s split. That album, Being There, surprised listeners at the time with its sonic versatility, claustrophobic introspection, and free-form exploration. It was visionary and strategically thought-out, masterminded by Tweedy to lessen his music’s backstory and instead bring a renewed sense of purpose to his current mindset, both artistically and personally.
Father-son bonding activities more typically involve things like camping trips or baseball games than recording an album, but Jeff Tweedy is not your typical father, and Spencer Tweedy is not your typical son. The elder Tweedy, of course, has fronted Wilco for the past 20 years, amassing a catalog of quietly gripping songs on eight studio LPs that have expanded from rootsy rock ’n’ roll into something more expansive and frequently more visceral along the way. The younger Tweedy is a preternaturally gifted drummer who has spent the past 11 years playing in Chicago band The Blisters.
As frontman of Wilco, and before that of alt.country pioneers Uncle Tupelo, Jeff Tweedy has been making consistently impressive records for 25 years now. Not quite a solo effort (his 18-year-old son, Spencer, helps out on drums), Sukierae is another album to savour. Low Key and Summer Noon feature breezy pop hooks that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on 1999’s Summerteeth, while the introspective, piano-led Where My Love showcases Tweedy’s way with bruised balladry.
“I’ve always been low key,” professes Jeff Tweedy on Low Key, with a curious mix of self deprecation and defiance. Sukierae, titled after Tweedy’s nickname for his wife, feels like a highly personal record, to the extent that it needed to be made as a separate project rather than emerge as another Wilco album. In keeping with the sentiment of Low Key, it sometimes sounds unassuming and humble but it also has a rawness and clarity too.
Some solo projects are more surprising than others. Sukierae – the first such outing by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, backed by a few indie-pop pros, plus his teen son Spencer on drums – serves mostly to confirm what we already know: Pop Tweedy is one of the most emotionally fluent American songwriters around. Over two discs of psychedelic ballads ("High as Hello," "Down From Above"), Dylanesque dreams ("Desert Bell") and frustrated outbursts ("Please Don't Let Me Be So Understood"), he wrestles with a flood of complicated feelings – many no doubt provoked by the recent lymphoma diagnosis of his wife, the album's dedicatee.
"It took me 18 years to do this solo record," dad-joked Jeff Tweedy from the stage at Toronto's Urban Roots Festival this summer, "because I had to grow a drummer." Originally conceived as a solo project for the Wilco frontman on which he'd play all the instruments, Tweedy found that he preferred the sound of his compositions when accompanied by his teenage son's thoughtful drumming. It's easy to see why. Spencer Tweedy has a light touch, and an enviable musical sensitivity; he is a drummer in the Brain Blade vein, more concerned with tone and texture than mere timekeeping.
Jeff Tweedy makes sure he's never the best musician in the room. Ever since he learned the ropes from the more experienced Jay Farrar in Uncle Tupelo, he's surrounded himself with players who are either more technically skilled or possess a distinctive style. It’s an odd strategy for an artist who is himself technically skilled and possesses a distinctive style, but over the last 25 years, it's proved a successful approach.
Not to sound jaded, but there’s reason to call the necessity of a Jeff Tweedy solo record into question. Fans have been clamoring for him to step out on his own and produce one for a long time, even though we’ve been listening to Tweedy’s songs for over 20 years. It started with the bruised tales of podunk heartbreak he achingly slung alongside Jay Farrar in Uncle Tupelo, an act he followed up by becoming his generation’s great American songwriting auteur with Wilco.
Sukierae, a collaboration between Wilco's Jeff Tweedy and his 18-year-old son, Spencer, wears its dad-rock bona fides proudly. The album takes its title from a nickname of Tweedy's wife of nearly 20 years, Sue, who was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year (the prognosis is reportedly good, though the scare certainly informs the album's mood and subject matter). Appropriately, then, Sukierae ruminates heavily on growing up, marriage, fatherhood, and the alternately blissful and uneasy life of the Tweedy family.
TweedySukierae(dBPM)Rating: 3.5 Stars (out of 5) Jeff Tweedy has long been dismissive of anyone who bestows upon Wilco – the band he’s fronted for 20 years – the classification of “Dad-Rock.” You can hardly blame him; nobody goes into rock and roll with an endgame of making low-key sounds for suburban commuters or mowing the lawn on weekends. And yet, there’s an approachability and warmth to Wilco’s music that renders it not merely impressive on a sonic level, but actually sort of comforting – in the same way you might take comfort in an after-work bourbon, for instance. After all this time, however, Tweedy seems to have owned up to being “Dad-rock” by taking it to its literal extreme.
Jeff Tweedy has toured alone, in tandem with his full Wilco show, for the past decade or more, so the idea of his releasing a “solo” album is nothing shocking. He also has a history of recording collaboratively, most notably with the likes of Billy Bragg and Mavis Staples. Yet the announcement he’d recorded a long-player with his 18-year-old son Spencer was a slight surprise, despite Tweedy junior being an accomplished drummer who even played on Staples’ record.
'Guess - it’s one of your songs.' 'One of my songs? "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart"?' 'No.' 'Uhh… "I Need a Camera"?' 'No!' '"Dreamer in My Dreams"?' 'No.' '"Casino Queen"?' 'Nuh uh.' Wilco fans will remember the scene from I Am Trying To Break Your Heart as Jeff Tweedy and son Spencer play a tour bus game, the toddler tapping the rhythm to ‘Heavy Metal Drummer’. Jeff finally guesses right and starts a family sing-along, nurturing his son’s musical exuberance. Now 18, and a fully-fledged drummer, the scenario has come full circle as Spencer joins his dad as Tweedy.
Tweedy's "Sukierae" (dBpm Records), the debut album by Wilco singer Jeff Tweedy and his oldest son, 18-year-old Spencer, at first appears to be an unwieldy beast: 20 songs spread across more than 74 minutes, exactly the wrong type of album to release in these attention-deficient times. There are countless options for approaching this music — an extended and potentially exhausting front-to-back listen, cherry-picking tracks on shuffle mode, and many points in between. Most of them will be unsatisfying in some way.
Jeff Tweedy is a remarkably versatile songwriter, even when only considering the output of his main gig, Wilco. For every delicate ballad like “Far, Far Away,” there’s a noise-rock storm like “Kicking Television”; for every Tin Pan Alley pastiche like “Hummingbird,” there’s a hazy fever dream like “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart.” Jeff Tweedy contains multitudes. Those multitudes are ably represented on Sukierae, the debut record from the aptly named duo Tweedy, which primarily consists of Jeff and his drummer son Spencer.
Jeff Tweedy has never put out a proper solo record. On every existing collection of his songs, the presence of his collaborators is always felt. Every album from back in his legendary Uncle Tupelo days was split evenly (or unevenly, depending on your allegiances) with Jay Farrar. Tweedy’s excellent contributions to the LPs of alt-country supergroup Golden Smog are nestled among songs which he neither wrote, sang nor played.
Remember the first time you caught a glimpse of Spencer Tweedy’s drumming skills? If you’re a Wilco fan—or have a penchant for getting a behind the scenes look at the music biz—you probably do. More than a decade ago, Spencer, now 18, appeared in the Wilco documentary, I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, air drumming alongside dad as the tour bus rolled down the highway. Fast-forward to 2014, and the duo is still rocking out together, releasing the two-disc album, Sukierae.
The band name is a tip-off that this is not simply a solo effort from Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, but a family affair with his 18-year-old drummer son, Spencer. The 20-track, two-disc “Sukierae” — the nickname of Tweedy’s wife and Spencer’s mom — explores a variety of sonic avenues, but on balance stays in a contemplative, acoustic place with melancholy waltzes, hazy finger-picked ballads, and dreamy remembrances carrying the day. Among the best are the simultaneously downcast and hopeful “Pigeons” and the gentle bopper “Low Key,” an endearing ode to those who don’t put emotions on display.
Welcome to the music industry’s Super Tuesday. Today marks the start of the fall rush, when record companies open the floodgates, setting a pace of releases that won't cease until the last leaves drop. This year’s crop offers a veritable autumnal cornucopia, including Lady Gaga’s tete-a-tete ….