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'No Depression (Legacy Edition)'   

-  Label: 'Sony Legacy'
-  Genre: 'Alt/Country' -  Release Date: '27th January 2014'

Our Rating:
Uncle Tupelo's debut album is generally regarded as the most important of the four albums the Illinois band released between 1990 and 1994. It is justifiably seen as central to defining what would eventually be labelled Alt.Country, even though that particular genre term only became widely used after the band had split up.   

Initially, the band had no intention of playing country music, alternative or otherwise. High school buddies Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy, backed by Mike Heidorn on drums, bonded over a love of hardcore punk band Black Flag. It was only after The Primitives became Uncle Tupelo that the influences from traditional country songs found their way into the music.

In the grand scheme of things, rejection of the conventions of the polished, yet insipid, sound of Nashville did not mean that the trio were blazing a fresh trail. It is more accurate to see them as following in the footsteps of like-minded mavericks, outlaws and cosmic cowboys.

This partly explains why Jeff Tweedy has been so dismissive about claims that the band's early albums were in any way pioneering. In response to the suggestion that his own contribution to the group's albums was 'visionary', he commented "I wish I was that smart".

But although Uncle Tupelo did not actually invent a new sound, the sheer energy and vitality of the tracks on their debut gives credence to Sony Records assertion that it is "a genuine milestone in American rock'n'roll"..

This bold claim has also been more objectively endorsed by the authoritative voice of David Goodman, author of 'Modern Twang'. In this definitive guide to the 'alternative' country music scene, he wrote unequivocally that " Uncle Tupelo were without doubt the most influential group of the period".

Nevertheless, more than two decades on, it is not so easy to appreciate why music founded on classic rock riffs and traditional country ballads should have come to be defined as 'alternative'; all the more so since many other bands have adopted a similar template.

The Legacy Edition partly helps solve this mystery by capturing the full glory and raw enthusiasm of the band. It achieves this, not by re-mastering the original 13 tracks, but by including 22 rough-edged demos made before the album's release. These crude recordings are, in many ways, preferable to the cleaner, digitally enhanced versions and include the now historic ten track demo tape 'Not Forever, Just For Now' from 1989 that sealed their record deal with Rockville.

It is the unrefined urgency of these early cassettes that makes them so impressive. You can even forgive them for some dodgy phasing effects at the end of Graveyard Shift because songs like this, and Factory Belt, so powerfully articulate the frustration of the dead end jobs that gave them the "home town same town blues".

The extra tracks also include faithful renditions of The Vertebrat's Left In The Dark and The Flying Burrito Brothers' Sin City which help reinforce the band's punk meets country-rock credentials.

The most vibrant of the demos are two versions of Blues Die Hard from 1987 and 1988 where a Eight Miles High jangly beat morphs into a scuzzy Grunge-like riff.

Time and again, the band's desolate yet defiant tone is reflected in the dour vocals of Jay Farrar who reveals an abiding preference for the balladry of heartache and loss.

Meanwhile, on songs like Flatness and Screen Door, Jeff Tweedy may not necessarily come across as optimistic but you can still detect his more pop-rock orientated approach to song writing.

The contrast between the two personalities would later become more and more apparent as the Uncle Tupelo sound matured and is underlined in the musical philosophy of their subsequent bands, Son Volt and Wilco respectively.

Back in 1990, the garage band dynamics of Uncle Tupelo were a vital part of their appeal but unlike British punk rockers, they were not so routinely dismissive of their musical heritage.

While Messrs Strummer, Jones et al had no qualms about rejecting past rock idols ("no Beatles, Elvis and The Rolling Stones"), Farrar and Tweedy could be found delving into dusty back catalogues and mining the country-blues roots of American Folk Music for inspiration.

No Depression would be all the poorer without its cover versions of two songs which had appeared in Harry Smith's great Anthology. The title track is an acoustic take on The Carter Family's No Depression In Heaven and John Hardy is a spikier version of the much covered tale of this 'desperate man' sentenced to hang for murder.

The bleak fatalism of these two tunes is in keeping with the wider and more contemporary frustrations. They also feed into a general disgust with the small-minded capitalists so succinctly identified in Whiskey Bottle as "people chasing money and money getting away".

This 35 track double CD ends where the Uncle Tupelo story began with Pickle River, an instrumental which was one of the first tunes the band committed to tape and originally intended as the b-side to an unreleased single of That Year.

Farrar and Tweedy would go on to write far better songs than this and develop a more refined sound but this second reissue serves as a reminder that the ragged glory of No Depression remains as unique and essential as ever.
  author: Martin Raybould

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UNCLE TUPELO - No Depression (Legacy Edition)
UNCLE TUPELO - No Depression (Legacy Edition)