Most great artists in contemporary popular music have taken a sharp turn against the grain at some point, showing themselves to possess a range and depth which allows them to escape shorthand categorization. Here is where Uncle Tupelo made their move: As modern-rock radio was breaking toward the jet-engine sounds of Seattle, the trio retreated to a Georgia studio armed with acoustic instruments for a weeklong session with R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck at the helm. The result was a strikingly understated album that looked backward as much as forward; nearly half its tracks were taken from traditional songbooks dating to the early 20th century. They touch on deep, dark themes with “Coalminers” and “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down,” though their voices harmonize with gospel-style inspiration on the Louvin Brothers’ pointedly ironic “Atomic Power.” Of the originals, Jay Farrar’s leadoff track “Grindstone” — which might have sounded at home on the band’s first two records with an electric arrangement — is the standout, though Jeff Tweedy’s hushed, haunting “Fatal Wound,” fleshed out with subtle string touches, marked a sign of growth for him as a songwriter. A minor revelation is the hypnotic instrumental “Sandusky,” with their good friend Brian Henneman of the Bottle Rockets on mandolin.
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