1990 was a year of great and momentous events. Some of those are memories which will last with all of us forever: the U.S. participated in the Gulf War. Milli Vanilli had a Grammy award revoked. They made a movie of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles–but with real people! And alt-country made its big break.
“Wait, what?” you say. “You mean my tattoo that reads ‘Rilo Kiley: Original Alt-Country Gangstas’ needs to be removed?” Yeah. Thanks to three snot-nosed, underfed kids from the sleepy factory town of Belleville, IL. Two of those kids were none other than future Son Volt singer Jay Farrar and eventual Chicagoan/Wilco superstar Jeff Tweedy. Brought together by a mutual love of the Minutemen and the Carter Family, Tweedy and Farrar followed in the footsteps of previous country/punk fusioneers like X and Neil Young, but pushed the envelope in their refusal to compromise the influence of either genre.
After spending the end of the 1980’s gigging around the greater St. Louis area, Tweedy and Farrar, joined by drummer Mike Heidorn, released their first album as Uncle Tupelo: No Depression. Although its chart success was far from that of future Top Ten-busting albums from the likes of Bright Eyes, No Depression sent shockwaves through the rock underground, inspiring both R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck to let the band live in his house and record an album there for free, and a magazine, unsurprisingly titled No Depression, which ran bi-monthly for over thirteen years.
And although the album’s musical impact is absolutely undeniable, giving birth to hundreds if not thousands of similarly-styled bands, a fresh listen, 19 years after the album’s release, elicits a response of mild embarrassment. Opening with a rootsy riff on acoustic guitar, and some trying-really-hard-not-to-sound-twenty-years-old vocals from Jay Farrar, “Graveyard Shift” gets everything revolutionary about this album out of the way at 31 seconds in. A drum roll from Heidorn, and then, bang–power chord city.
From there on out, it’s 41 minutes of stuttering Minutemen riffs and quiet/loud Nirvana dynamics, just with a slight Nashville accent. Out of the eleven original songs on the album, eight of them are nearly structurally identical: an acoustic intro, some vocals, then cowboy chords through a Marshall stack, a little country-style verse work, and a big alt-rock chorus. Farrar and Tweedy manage even to give Lead Belly’s classic “John Hardy” the same treatment–to almost comical results. There’s just something a little laughable about hearing a guy who just reached legal drinking age sing about the arrest and hanging of a murderous, gambling, railroad man on his debut album.
The album’s other cover, the Carter Family’s “No Depression In Heaven” (abbreviated here as “No Depression”), is another affair altogether. Against a traditional arrangement of acoustic guitar and upright bass, Farrar and Tweedy harmonize the lyrics (thankfully untouched by Farrar’s pen, as in the case of “John Hardy”). And although it’s not a revolutionary reading of the song, the inclusion of “No Depression” works on two levels: firstly, it legitimizes Uncle Tupelo’s love of great country music. “No Depression” also gives the album a wry humorous twist: although the Carter Family’s original song is a promise of hope for those just struggling to live through the Great Depression of the 1930’s, in the mouths of two young Midwestern punks, “I’m going where there’s no Depression” is a quick-witted jab at the Prozac-munching world of pop psychology disguised as a complaint against Hoover-era economics.
And while there isn’t much to be said for most of the other originals, other than they sound like an uneasy truce between Hank Williams and Henry Rollins, one song in particular stands out. “Screen Door”, which had been a mainstay in Uncle Tupelo’s repertoire since the band’s first demo tape, lays down the blueprint for trendy indie music for the next twenty years. Featuring easy-strumming acoustic guitar, a bit of guest instrumentalists on antiquated or “quirky” instruments like fiddle and harmonica, and some biting social critique “down here, we don’t care/what happens outside the screen door,” “Screen Door” is like a peek twenty years into the future, where contemporary bands like O’Death and Okkervil River are championing a similar sound into the 2010’s. It’s no mistake, either, that Saddle Creek Records–home of the aforementioned Rilo Kiley and Bright Eyes (possibly this band’s first direct descendant)–was formed just three short years after the release of No Depression.
While it’s far from perfect (it’s not even Uncle Tupelo’s best album), No Depression is irrevocably one of the most influential records of the Nineties. It may not have made it into as many homes as Nevermind, but No Depression is as least as responsible for the way indie rock sounds now, even though its sales figures may not even make up a hundredth of that album’s. And arguably, its influence may have been for the better. Twenty years later, the music does sound a little hackneyed and one-dimensional–as opposed to albums like Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation, whose music has aged more gracefully–and the world is hardly clamoring for an Uncle Tupelo reunion tour. But much like Daydream Nation, revisiting No Depression gives the listener a disturbing perspective of the growing trend towards stagnation and hero-worship in the world of indie rock–leaving listeners to wonder why they should buy new albums when so many bands sound so much like those that came twenty years before.