Being There is the second album by the largely alt-country band Wilco. It was released in 1996 on Reprise Records. The album consists of two discs, the first totaling thirty six minutes and twenty two seconds in length, and the second totaling forty minutes and forty four seconds in length, for a total album length of seventy seven minutes and six seconds.
Wilco consists of Jeff Tweedy on vocals, bass, radio and guitar; Jay Bennett on guitar, pianos, harmonica, lap steel, drums, accordion, and backing vocals; John Stirratt on bass, violin, piano, and backing vocals; Max Johnston on dobro, fiddle, mandolin, banjo, and backing vocals; and Ken Coomer on drums, percussion, guitar, and backing vocals. Also appearing on this album are Greg Leisz on pedal steel; Jesse Greene on violin; Bob Egan on pedal steel and steel guitar; Jerry Hey and Gary Grant on trumpet; Larry Williams on tenor saxophone; and Dan Higgins on tenor and baritone sax. Just looking at the instrument list might give a clue that this album pushes and often escapes the boundaries of alt-country, as it is a very eclectic album.
Wilco grew from the ashes of Uncle Tupelo, the band that more or less kick-started the alt-country movement. In fact, their influence was such that the title of Uncle Tupelo's debut album, No Depression, is often used as a nickname for the genre and is the name of the most well known magazine to cover the genre. Uncle Tupelo started off as a garage punk band with country elements, and over time evolved slowly into a mixture of blues, folk, country, and punk rock, which is probably the best description one could give of the alt-country genre as a whole.
After Uncle Tupelo split into two bands in 1994 (the other being Son Volt), Wilco quickly released an album, AM, which basically sounded a lot like the last Uncle Tupelo album. That's not a bad thing, of course, but frontman Jeff Tweedy wanted more. And in a lot of ways, he delivered.
Being There, when you first look it over, impresses you with its size and scope. A double album with nineteen tracks is a pretty strong achievement for anyone. The packaging of the album, too, is impressive; its simple cover featuring a hand and a guitar folds out like a majestic 1970s style gatefold cover. The theme is evident; Wilco was shooting straight for greatness here.
Musically, the album stretches across more genres than one could possibly expect. Pop, rock, punk, folk, blues, and country all live here, and almost any interleaving of the genres that you can imagine can be found on these two discs. If there were one word to describe this album, I think it would be eclectic. Given another word, I would tack on the adjective excellent.
Lyrically, Being There covers a lot of ground, but underneath all the tracks running like a common thread is the fragile psyche of a folk singer coming to grips with a world that can be both hard and beautiful, often at the same time.
The first disc of the album opens with Misunderstood (6:27), opening with a minute of throbbing, angry, angst-filled guitar and bass, then suddenly dropping down to a voice and a piano. This is one of the best angst songs I've ever heard, but it's not teen angst; it's the angst of an adult who has been through a lot already and things just don't seem to be getting better, so he sits at the piano and lets it all pour out of the reserve like sweet water from a pump on a hot Sunday afternoon. The chaotic angsty conclusion fits wonderfully on top of the rest of the song. The opening song may be worth the price of admission alone.
Far, Far Away (3:20), by contrast, has a withdrawn folk-y style that sounds like it comes from the other side of the world than the opener if it weren't for Jeff Tweedy's voice bringing it home with a common vocal thread.
As if designed to show off their wide diversity, the third track Monday (3:33) is some excellent southern-fried rock, like something Lynyrd Skynyrd would be proud of. The song effectively uses a horn section and a collection of hooks so strong that it burrows into your mind and stays there for weeks. Of all the Wilco songs, I find myself singing this one more than any other during my morning shower.
The fourth track Outtasite (Outta Mind) (2:33) continues on this rock-country fusion vein, this time sounding almost like The Rolling Stones or some of the better early John Mellencamp stuff, achieved by adding a healthy dollop of blues to the audio mix.
Forget The Flowers (2:46) returns to a very earthy folk style with some well-executed banjo music from Max Johnston guiding the track. The banjo and bass section in the middle of the track is one of the musical high points on the entire album; the instruments meld together wonderfully.
Red-Eyed and Blue (2:44) is a mellow track full of sounds echoing from a piano and a well-played acoustic guitar. Jeff Tweedy's vocals are dripping with sadness here in one of the better vocal performances on the disc, about love lost in America.
The seventh track on the first disc, I Got You (At The End Of The Century) (3:56), is a piano guided blues, country, and rock guitar fest with some very good harmonization throughout. It sounds like some of the best stuff offered up by the progressive country acts that littered the 1970s, even offering a shout out to them of sorts in the lyrics.
What's The World Got In Store (3:09) again returns to the simplest basics; Jeff Tweedy, his voice, and a guitar is all you'll find for the first minute of this song. When the rest of the band joins in with guitar, harmony, and percussion, it fulfills the point of the song: we're never really alone, no matter how we feel. Very well executed.
Hotel Arizona (3:37), in title and in sound, comes off like a tribute to The Eagles. The Hammond organ and the heavy guitars make this song really take off, as do the vocalized background elements throughout the song.
The closer of the first disc, Say You Miss Me (4:07), really ties together the first disc well; if I had to point to one song that summarizes the "Wilco sound," I would probably point to this one, which mixes pop, country, and blues elements together very well.
The second disc of this double album opens in a comparable way to the first disc, with an angsty anthem full of loud guitars. Sunken Treasure (6:51) opens very mellow, but the driving percussion and slowly more powerful guitar builds this song into a great angsty rock anthem, a great parallel to the first disc opener, and a nice opening to the second disc of the album.
Someday Soon (2:33) has a nice mix of banjo and steel guitar that somehow summons the spirit of some of the greats of old-time country music like Hank Williams and Bill Monroe. Perhaps this reflection of the spirit of old country music comes from the slight echo on Jeff Tweedy's voice added into the harmonization from the other band members.
Outta Mind (Outta Sight) (3:19) is something of a reprisal of the similarly-titled fourth track on the first disc of this album. The two have nearly identical lyrics, but this one feels slightly more subdued and downbeat than the first; the small changes in the song make it still recognizable, but still quite different than its first disc partner.
Someone Else's Song (3:20) is a very somber piece, with just a guitar and a very gentle harmonica for accompaniment. It is definitely the most somber track on both discs, marking the most melancholy point on the album (appropriately led in by the rather melancholy Outta Mind (Outta Sight)).
Kingpin (5:17) sounds like an acoustic blues jam session, much more lively than the previous track. It slowly builds into this jam session feel though, with some very bluesy vocals and a single guitar for the start of the track.
The sixth song on the second disc, (Was I) In Your Dreams (3:31), sounds like a smoky number that you would expect to hear from the band playing in the corner at the local bar... that is, if the band in the local bar was a diamond in the rough musically. The twangy guitar, rambling piano, and lazy harmonization makes this song quite interesting and distinctive.
Why Would You Wanna Live (4:16) uses a mix of piano and drum for a very strong and interesting percussion throughout the song. The downbeat lyrics (read the title) and drifty choruses make this song click in an unusual way.
The Lonely 1 (4:44) uses some wonderfully subtle guitars to accentuate this sad song about being a fan of a particular musician utterly in love with the object of your fandom, and how the life of a musician can sometimes be very lonely as well. The soft violins and gentle guitar playing make up the notable instrumentation in this song.
The album closes with Dreamer In My Dreams (6:44), a strongly rocking tune that just closes everything together on an upbeat note, with a wonderful fiddle and piano. This song almost comes off like, again, The Rolling Stones on something like Honky Tonk Blues. A very good album closer to a very good album.
This album is widely available through internet outlets and records stores across the United States. It is well worth picking up, especially since most stores price it as though it were a single album.
Other albums of interest if you enjoyed this one would include No Depression and Anodyne by Uncle Tupelo, AM by Wilco themselves, Trace by Son Volt, and Stranger's Almanac by Whiskeytown.
A Final Note: If you are willing to give anything close to the country genre a chance, this, along with the soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou?, would be my instant recommendations to you. There really is a lot to like on this album.