Interlude: A.M. (Wilco)

Disc x Tracks 1-13

To make one logistical element clear: I haven’t been able to nail down the order of events in 1994 involving the recording of Wilco’s A.M. and the Bottle Rockets’ The Brooklyn Side. I know they both happened in 1994, and I know that the A.M. sessions ran roughly from June through August, and that the Brooklyn Side sessions happened some time that year; could have been before, could have been after. I’m choosing to wedge A.M. in between the first two Bottle Rockets albums, but that might not be accurate, and certainly doesn’t reflect the release order.

Anyway: for Bottle Rockets fans, A.M. represents a portal to an alternate universe that briefly opened in 1994. Uncle Tupelo had broken up, with most of the 1994 lineup of the band staying clustered around Jeff Tweedy. To get the new enterprise off the ground, Tweedy reached out to his friend and former almost-bandmate Henneman to play lead guitar on Wilco’s first effort as the band found its feet. Henneman stepped in and left his mark all over the record.

A.M. is a frustrating work; my longtime opinion, which I periodically doubt and then reaffirm by listening to the record, is that Tweedy had about enough good songs on hand match up to his usual contribution to an Uncle Tupelo album. Unfortunately, the new structure called for him to produce an entire album’s worth. The result is A.M., with one of the worst killer:filler ratios on any album that I still kind of love.

The good songs an A.M. are very good; Henneman’s presence makes them better. He provides a chill grounding when it’s appropriate (“I Must Be High,” “Box Full of Letters,” “Passenger Side”) and blows the top of his amp off when needed (“Casino Queen,” “That’s Not the Issue”). The boring songs, well, he acquits himself honorably, but it was always going to take a lot more than an interesting guitar part to save “It’s Just That Simple.”

A.M. is an odd experience from the Bottle Rockets perspective, because the guitar is so obviously Brian Henneman but there’s nothing of his songwriting presence; the subject matter might be close to some Bottle Rockets material, but it’s all filtered through Tweedy’s sensibility and delivered in his voice. It’s an interesting experiment in seeing Henneman as a sideman. I can’t say this for sure, but it’s always been my impression that there was some chance that Henneman would have become a full-time member of Wilco, presumably hitting pause on the Bottle Rockets to do so. This is backed up partly by a conversation a friend of mine reported having with him over beers at a casino in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and partly by some oblique comments of Tweedy’s in his memoir; but really, who knows?

Either way, I’m glad it didn’t happen. Henneman’s lead playing suited the early Wilco style, but his musical gifts extend much further than that, and it would have been a shame to see them subsumed into the larger Wilco machine. And as far as that goes, Wilco’s march into their golden age required them to open up their sound, leave country behind, and ride Jay Bennett’s weird suite of skills; that never would have happened if Henneman hadn’t left the slot open for him. In the end, everybody won when Henneman decided to stick with the Bottle Rockets.

Next up: nothing beats a strike from the Brooklyn side.

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