Uncle Tupelo: March 16-20, 1992 (1992)
Peter Buck of R.E.M. produced, quickly recording the album over five days (per the album title), and it has an immediate, immaculate sound that calls to mind both R.E.M.'s early albums as well as the similarly Buck-produced The Good Earth by the Feelies.
Lyrically, the album is of a piece with the band's prior work, grim tales of hard work in Middle America; but without the electric blast of the earlier albums, the lyrics accompanied only by quiet acoustic guitars and the occasional mandolin, the songs sink in much deeper, making the hairs on your neck stand up. And while frontman Jay Farrar's haunting vocals continue to anchor the band, this time around bassist Jeff Tweedy is more than just a contributor of a few songs, taking a fair share of the songwriting and vocal duties. Tweedy's songs take a big leap from his earlier contributions, starting to foreshadow his later recordings with Wilco (though the more equal division of labor took its toll on Farrar, who broke up the band after just one more album and carrying on with Son Volt).
Personal favorites here include Farrar's opener "Grindstone," which is almost poppy, much lighter than much of what follows; "Shaky Ground," which borrows R.E.M.'s riff from "Welcome to the Heron House," turning it into a gorgeous ballad; and some terrific Tweedy originals, notably "Black Eye" and "Wait Up," both riveting slices of life with some exciting finger picking. But the album's secret weapon is "Sandusky," a twangy instrumental that mostly just repeats its riff yet sounds somehow epic, the sort of foreboding, rich tune that you'd think every indie film director would kill to include on a soundtrack.
The whole album sounds so world-weary and wise, so enmeshed in the Americana songbook, it's hard to believe these guys were barely in their mid-20s at the time, basically just kicking off their long-running (and separate) careers.
Not a lot of video out there, so here's Farrar with a solo take on "Grindstone":
Here's a nice little travelogue set to "Sandusky":