The Falling Wallendas were a power-pop outfit out of Chicago, close enough to 90FM’s Central Wisconsin home base that there was surely a little regional affection and pride for many of the deejays that played their self-titled debut. After an admittedly cursory search, I wasn’t able to find any music from this album readily available on the interweb for open listening. The closest I got was a live version of the song “Porn,” which appears in its studio version on their sophomore effort, Belittle. That second outing was also their last. Besides having an aces band name, the Falling Wallendas deserve extra credit for having a guitar-slinger going by the name Arch Alcatraz.
Moving about one-hundred and fifty miles north up Interstate 90, Ivory Library was a mainstay of the Madison, Wisconsin music scene from the mid-nineteen-eighties to the late-nineties. Those with deep knowledge of the band knew they also had a strong connection to Stevens Point, the town that was named after the call letters in the legal station ID at the top of every hour. Parasite was considered a major album for the band, an escalation of their already complex art rock leanings. The Onion, back when they were a weekly free newspaper distributed around Madison, asserted, “Parasite is to Ivory Library what Lone Rhino is to Adrian Belew, or what Country Life is to Roxy Music.
88. Wilco, A.M.
I don’t know if it was a requirement that I choose a side, but I did. Uncle Tupelo was such a paragon act on the nineteen-nineties alt-country scene that their debut album, No Depression, provided the name to the primary magazine covering that subgenre of music. After the band formally broke up in 1994, concluding with a small tour that must have been intensely uncomfortable, both of Uncle Tupelo’s chief songwriters rushed into new musical endeavors. The first album from Jay Farrar’s band, Son Volt, arrived in the fall of 1995. Jeff Tweedy beat him to the record racks by about six months. Wilco’s A.M. was released in the spring of 1995, led by the single “Box Full of Letters,” a song that the label assuredly hoped would signal Uncle Tupelo fans that this was the band destined to carry one the sound they loved so much.
Tweedy took most of the closing line-up of Uncle Tupelo with him when he formed Wilco. Part of the result is that the band playing on A.M. sounds tight and focused. They strike hard, sounding like they have something to prove, but part of the statement of purpose they are required to make is that they are loose and free. “I Must Be High” and the drunkard’s lament of “Passenger Side” are not tracks laid down by a band taking themselves too seriously. And then there are songs like “Pick Up the Change,” which is such a right fine country song that it practically wafts with the odor of stale beer from the bottom of a glass that’s been touched by a tear or two. The album may be a touch overlong — a recurring problem for Wilco over the years — but that represents its own sort of admirable ambition.
As I noted, I chose sides. I wasn’t much of an Uncle Tupelo fan, but I had friends who were deep devotees. By 1995, I was living in Madison, and both Wilco and Son Volt made that city’s Barrymore Theatre a regular tour stop. I wouldn’t have gone of my own accord, but it represented a night out with pals who I wasn’t able to see often enough. Son Volt made me sleepy. Wilco was electrifying, albeit the most laid back version of electrifying I’d ever seen. If those shows aren’t special enough in my memory, I had a distant, preliminary encounter with someone who’d become one of my dearest friends when she notably yelled “Casino Queen!” all through one of the performances, even after Tweedy gently explained from the stage, “We’re gettin’ to that one a little later, sweetheart.” (She missed that announcement.) I think A.M. is a fine album. It carries a different value for me personally. Every one of the notes on the record not only places me back in that year, but in some of my favorite moments of 1995. It represents my friends and I just starting to grow up while still hanging on, albeit just barely, to our shared youth.