Album Review: No Depression [Legacy Edition] by Uncle Tupelo
Exceptionally Good, Based on 10 Critics
Record Collector - 100 Based on rating 5/5
Pulling together the disparate influences of hardcore punk, classic country and alternative guitar bands of the mid-80s, No Depression is arguably alt.country’s touchstone album. This newly released “legacy edition” sees Jay Farrar, Jeff Tweedy and Mike Heidorn’s masterpiece remastered and backed up with 22 extra tracks, including the band’s widely heralded Not Forever, Just For Now demo. The remastering of the original LP lends the ferocious guitars and raw vocals a deep and more rounded sound.
This is it: the much celebrated cornerstone of contemporary alternative country, an album so influential that its title became a synonym for the form itself. To be sure, it’s a lofty legacy for any album to live up to. In fact, it’s rare that such vaunted releases make good on the promises of their accompanying hype. But Uncle Tupelo’s 1990 debut, No Depression, does, resolutely and without fail.
In the summer of 1990, somewhere in the puzzling chasm between lipstick-smeared hair-metal excess and flannel-clad grunge irony, Uncle Tupelo arrived on the scene like a record scratch. Their now-legendary debut, No Depression, was an album that cemented a burgeoning underground movement and eventually lent its name to a damn fine little journal of Americana music. Its sound was refreshingly unvarnished, the band striving for passion over perfection, authenticity over hip cachet.
As far as genre-decrees go, alt-country’s an especially prickly one. The phrase was never really championed by the artists it was applied to, in part because its premise was cumbersome and vague, but mostly because it was tied to a particular moment in which country music was understood—briefly and mistakenly—as inherently mainstream. (That idea, at least, has dissipated: anyone who’s ever spent any time pawing through a Used Country LPs bin or listening to “Drinks After Work” knows that country music, as a whole, is completely insane.
Pitched as "Hüsker Dü meets Woody Guthrie," Uncle Tupelo's 1990 debut made the countrypunk notions of the Mekons, the Meat Puppets and others into a raison d'être, furthering a major movement. This expanded reissue adds Not Forever, Just for Now, the 1989 demo tape that got them signed. Its 10 songs, recorded in an attic in Champaign, Illinois, were beefed up on No Depression (and its sister single, the Midwest indie-rock boozer anthem "I Got Drunk").
This may just be me, but it seems easy to think of Uncle Tupelo as a 'new' band. Perhaps that’s a reflection of the aging process, perhaps not. Perhaps it’s due to the band’s ties to Wilco, primarily through Jeff Tweedy but later also through bass player John Stirratt and drummer Ken Coomer, who may have lately been labelled 'dad rock' (whatever that means) but whose greatest work is inextricably linked to the contemporary, the zeitgeist and the innovative, and moreover is a landmark album of the still-young twenty-first century.
Somewhere between garage rock, punk and the Pogues, Uncle Tupelo were proud proponents of alt-country, a genre that, when they were operating in the late 80s and early 90s, was anathema to many of their contemporaries. On this reissue of their debut album, recorded when the band – Jeff Tweedy, Mike Heidorn and Jay Farrar – were all in their early 20s, the one thing that marks it out is how frantic it still sounds. Uncle Tupelo operated before Tweedy formed Wilco and Farrar assembled Son Volt, and you can hear the pair honing what would become much more sophisticated songwriting.
Chances are, when future tastemakers set out to uncover the exact juncture at which Americana merged with insurgency, they’ll find their ‘ah-ha’ moment by tapping into Uncle Tupelo’s seminal effort, No Depression. As the album that gave its title to an entire movement – as well as a revered journal of the same name – it paved the way for a pair of spin-offs that eventually overshadowed the mother ship, namely Wilco and Son Volt. And the influence they left on like-minded offspring has continued to flourish ever since.
Like many influential bands, the mythology of Uncle Tupelo overshadows its reality. The band’s 1990 debut, No Depression, mixes and matches several influences—mainly traditional folk music and vintage country with punk and ’80s college rock—and at the time of its release, it boosted the profile of the burgeoning alt-country scene. But in their hometown of Belleville, Illinois, the band members started off as anomalies, not pioneers.
Within what would come to be known as the "alt-country" scene, Uncle Tupelo's first album, 1990's No Depression, was the shot heard 'round the world; they most certainly weren't the first band to fuse the heartache of country with the brains and brawn of punk rock, but they managed to bring the two styles together without camp or gimmicks, in a manner that truly honored both genres and allowed their shared celebration of passion and belief above all else to shine through, and its example would be followed by literally thousands of musicians across the country. Decades after it first hit the racks, No Depression still sounds like a truly inspired bit of record-making: Jay Farrar's songs carry the bulk of the album, and great songs they are, especially the charging "Graveyard Shift" and "Factory Belt," and the mournful "Whiskey Bottle" and "Life Worth Living. " It would take a bit longer for Jeff Tweedy to start playing on an equal level, but the realistic yet impressionistic snapshots of "Train" and "Screen Door" made it clear he had the goods, and as a team, Tweedy, Farrar, and Michael Heidorn sound all but unstoppable here, tight as a drum and investing each song with a life-or-death level of emotional force.