We've Been Had: The Enduring Wisdom of Uncle Tupelo's Anodyne

Anodyne: Noun. Anything that relieves distress or pain. (dictionary.com)

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When Son Volt goes onstage tonight at the Continental Club (we've heard around 11 p.m.), there's an outside chance the band might pull out Doug Sahm's "Give Back the Key to My Heart" - we are in Texas, after all. Otherwise don't count on hearing anything from Jay Farrar's former band's final album, also known as Uncle Tupelo's Anodyne.

This makes Rocks Off kind of sad, but we understand. With its last two albums, 2007's The Search and this year's American Central Dust, Son Volt is on a creative hot streak. Besides, the 14-year-old group has a plenty deep back catalog all by itself without having to stretch back into the Tupelo days.


Give Back The Key To My Heart (Album Version) - Uncle Tupelo

It's just as well. Despite the title, Anodyne is the sound of a band coming apart at the seams. Co-founders Farrar and Jeff Tweedy, friends since their teens, very publicly grapple with their growing creative and personal differences, first dreading, then denying, then realizing they're insurmountable. Uncle Tupelo broke up in May 1994, eight months after Anodyne's release. They only held on that long to give their fans one final tour.

Anodyne's central theme is conflict, best captured on rampaging rockers "Chickamauga" - named after the bloodiest battle of the Civil War; "Chickamauga's where I've been, solitude is where I'm bound," Farrar sings - and "We've Been Had," but gnawing at the edges of softer songs like the title track ("you threw out the past when you threw out what was mine") and forlorn opener "Slate." Oddly, the most conciliatory track on the album leads it off. What little solace and consolation there is comes in the form of old country records ("Acuff-Rose") or early-morning strolls around New York City with a female companion ("New Madrid").


Chickamauga (Album Version) - Uncle Tupelo

Like the Stones' Let It Bleed or U2's Achtung Baby, Anodyne is what Rocks Off calls a "spinal" album, meaning it forms the backbone of not only our musical library, but how we've come to define ourselves musically, mentally and morally. Its lyrics, both Tweedy's and Farrar's, have become personal catchphrases and mantras over the years: "Dreams can never be bought," "All my daydreams, disasters," "I've been searching and you've been gone."

We've fought fire with unlit matches, carried that heavy load, watched as a "friend" named cocaine drains life from a loved one's face - not to mention our own - and walked to the fountain with women both real and imaginary holding onto our arm. Many a late, late, late night in Austin, Rocks Off and our friend Bill Davis would sit around someone's porch or living room, blasted and/or wired to the gills, wearing out our lungs on "New Madrid." Shake my baby and please bring her back indeed.


New Madrid (Album Version) - Uncle Tupelo

It's a record we love to listen to rip-roaring drunk or dreadfully hung over, pie-eyed in love or bitterly heartbroken. When it's on, early in the morning or sometimes late at night, we always get the feeling everything's all right. Our favorite song changes almost every time we listen - Rocks Off averages at least two or three good Anodyne jags a year, and overall we'd still have to say "The Long Cut," "Chickamauga," "New Madrid," "Acuff/Rose" and of course "Key to My Heart."

This time through, though, it's a couple of tracks that come late in the album: the bluegrassy futility of Farrar's "Fifteen Keys" and golden-country exhaustion of Tweedy's "No Sense In Lovin'." (Rocks Off has always been more a Tweedy guy than Farrar, but lately the latter has been gaining.) Musically, Anodyne is stellar all the way through, aided immeasurably by the contributions of two Austinites: producer Lloyd Maines, erstwhile Joe Ely Band guitarist and father of Natalie, and multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston, later of Wilco and now of the Gourds.


The Long Cut (Album Version) - Uncle Tupelo

Rocks Off never saw Uncle Tupelo live. We almost did - we walked by Austin's Liberty Lunch the night of the band's last-ever show in town on our way to somewhere we don't even remember. We were 19 and stupid, but by the time Farrar and Tweedy regrouped and got Son Volt and Wilco back on their feet and out on the road, our Daily Texan friends Mike Brick, Joe Garza and Steve Scheibal (hi guys!) had fully indoctrinated us into the cult of Tupelo. We've hardly missed a Son Volt or Wilco show since, and certainly don't plan on starting now.

It's been an especially trying year for Rocks Off, both personally and professionally. Offhand, we can't think of a tougher one. But even knowing full well that every star that shines in the back of our mind is just waiting for its cover to be blown, we never listen to this album and come away feeling anything less than ready to take on the entire world. Maybe Anodyne is a perfect title after all.

Son Volt performs with Peter Bruntnell, 10 p.m. tonight at the Continental Club, 3700 Main, 713-529-9899 or www.continentalclub.com/Houston.html.

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