Music: Coming in, loud and clear

Wilco's new album Summerteeth is set to push them into the big time. Why are they so damned cynical, then? Perhaps it's because they've been here before.
Wilco mainstays Jeff Tweedy (twinkly, weatherbeaten) and Jay Bennett (burly, dreadlocked) are savouring a momentary pause between engagements. A beleaguered two-man colony of battered denim amid the lurid primary colours of a London radio station foyer, they take the opportunity to bolt a grim meal of toxic fast-food. Someone notes sympathetically that there's only a certain amount of that stuff you can eat. Tweedy responds sardonically: "I guess I would be living proof that that is not the case".

The charismatically rumpled singer speaks in a phlegmy mid-western drawl. Pitched somewhere between a croak and a whisper, it's the kind of voice you have to smoke really hard to keep. Listen to him sing on the current Wilco album Summerteeth and that act of sacrifice will seem wholly justified. This is a record whose remarkable poignancy and richness recalls Phil Spector's comment about "little symphonies for the kids", but with guitars and pianos instead of a 48-piece orchestra.

The dictionary definition of Wilco's name might be "c20: abbrev for I will comply", but the music of this Chicago-based quartet somehow combines resignation with defiance and melancholy with joy. Summerteeth wraps its nuggets of downbeat personal revelation in some of the most uplifting music imaginable. And Wilco's new single "Can't Stand It" is poised to take its magnificently depressing chorus - "You know it's all beginning to feel like its ending/ No love's as random as God's love/ I can't stand it" - into the unfamiliar terrain of the Top 40. It's not exactly "Agadoo doo doo eat pineapple shake the tree," but it'll do for the moment.

Washing down his foul meal with healing draughts of herbal tea, Jay Bennett considers the limitations of the pop radio promotional interview. "You'd think it would be liberating" he sighs, "working with just a microphone and a voice: you don't perceive your audience, there's nothing to be intimidated by, the opportunity to have fun in that context is immense". He shakes his head mournfully, "but the DJ's don't take advantage of it". "They only want to know how we get on with Billy Bragg", says Tweedy sadly, "I mean, like, who cares?"

Anyone who thought Wilco were going to be swept off their feet by the flood tide of adulation currently inundating Summerteeth would be well advised to think again. They may have been told their new record is "this year's Deserter's Songs" (ie, the record that somehow magically translates critical kudos into actual status without losing its mystery) so many times they now prefer to refer to Mercury Rev's 1998 landmark as "last year's Summer Teeth", but they aren't counting their chickens until they're in the oven.

" `This is the one,' " Tweedy says wearily, "We've been told that so many times. After a while you don't listen anymore, well you do, but only because it's entertaining... When we put our first record out, we were told we were going to be the next Hootie and the Blowfish".

Wilco's slightly underwhelming 1994 debut AM had its faults, but surely it wasn't that bad? "I'll take an 11 million record insult", Bennett snorts derisively, "if that's your way of insulting me, sure, go ahead - insult me all day."

Wilco's band banter has a bracingly stringent quality. Perhaps it's the isolation of their position - marooned between the blockbusting mediocrity of Hootie, the Dave Matthews band and their ilk and the arthouse credibility of Smog and Bonnie "Prince" Billy.

"If that guy likes Mariah Carey as much as he claims," Tweedy says of the latter, "he should put his money where his mouth is and get her to sing on his next record". "He should get someone to sing on his next record", Bennett concurs cattily: "last time I saw him play live he put 1500 people to sleep".

It must be rather intimidating to bare your soul to such a demanding audience. Does Tweedy ever feel vulnerable in front of his bandmates, when he first sings them songs like "How to Fight Loneliness" or "When You Wake Up Feeling Old"?

Bennett's feelings are hurt. "I don't need to hear Jeff's lyrics to know him as well as I know him," he insists.

"There's a certain power that comes from it, too," Tweedy maintains, "having a conversation with your friends and sharing a part of yourself, and it's not a one-way dialogue. Because you get stuff back from them musically".

He certainly does. Where 1997's equally gripping Being There was a ramshackle bar-band eulogy, Summerteeth spirals and quavers like a great lost girl- group album. Wilco do not like to think about how they got from one place to another.

"It's not a good story," Bennett insists. "It's not like we started our new record and it sounded just like Being There, so we went to the pub and decided to make a Sixties soul record".

But that's not a good story.

"No it's not," Tweedy agrees, "That's The Commitments."

"We're more like Inuit ivory carvers", the singer continues, somewhat mystifyingly. "We hold the magnetic tape in our hands and think what's on it and then we let it come out".

This analogy turns out to be less facetious than it initially seems. "Inuit stone carvers believe there are things captured inside a rock," Tweedy explains, "so they start carving without any idea of what they're aiming at, and then they find a bird in there. I think that's a really accurate way to describe the creative process."

"We took a rock and chiselled away until we found the big tooth," Bennett enthuses. "A giant molar!"

"We've actually got e-mail from people saying `You guys are supposed to be like Gram Parsons - what the hell is this? Which in a way is kind of gratifying. Because if people read about us being a country-rock band and then they go out and buy Summerteeth, I can't imagine them not being confused."

"People are confused," Bennett concludes mournfully. "Just not in the way that we want them to be."

And what way would that be exactly?

"It would be nice for people to be confused to the extent that they just accepted everything for what it was. [Jay assumes the voice of everyman] `I'm so confused by all this music, I'm just going to listen to it and decide what I like.'

`Can't Stand It' (Reprise, single) is out on Monday. Wilco appear on `Later' on Friday 16 April

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