- Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch)
the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot sessions wrapped last summer, Reprise
management suggested some "minor" changes -- a radio-friendly
overhaul that Jeff Tweedy and the boys couldn't jive with.
The band stood their ground. In the end, Wilco bought back
their album ($50K) and Reprise released them from their contract.
By all accounts the split was amicable on both ends. Jay Bennett,
who had grown to become a driving creative force in the group,
split the band shortly thereafter to pursue a solo career.
Minus Bennett, this left the band with a finished album,
heaps of media hype, and a die-hard fan base jonesing for
a hit of Wilco's new stuff, but no label to release the
album. Two years and counting since Wilco's last release,
Summerteeth (1999), the album that unshackled the band from
the dead weight of alt-country cultdom and shuttled them
to the mainstream spotlight. Obviously, the band felt the
time just as its fans and critics did. Wilco opted to stream
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in its entirety on their web site while
they shopped for a new label. Web-nerds across the globe
So, technically you could say that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
has been out for some time now. In fact, it landed on quite
a few top tens for 2001. Though this reviewer did agonize
over his computer listening to glitchy, stop-and-start cuts
from the new album, he came to the conclusion that this
was no way to listen to music, let alone review it.
It wasn't until recentlylong after Wilco signed on
with Nonesuch Records and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot disappeared
from their web sitethat I finally got a chance to
listen to the album the right way: headphones jacked into
the stereo, a cold longneck within arm's reach, lights turned
down low. (Many thanks to my source who risked his job and
pulled some Mission Impossible-shit to smuggle this yet-to-be-released
album out of Nonesuch.)
Picking up the through-line between Wilco's first album,
A.M., and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, their fourth, is difficult
if not downright impossible. Each release finds the band
shedding their former skin, reinventing their sound, and
sweeping away the footprints that led them to their current
incarnation. Though, in a sense, their latest effort is
very much classic Wilco; an album nebulous to genre pigeonholing,
unmistakably beautiful, spun from the heart.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is twang-free, lyrically stormy, and
instrumentally bright: complex arrangements built around
simple melodies and an atmospheric rhythm underbelly that
makes perfect sense in a chaos theory type way. The subtle
touch of Chicago wonder boy, Jim O'Rourke, the album's producer,
is unmistakable in Foxtrot's underlying experimental feel.
Why Reprise was so quick to part ways with Wilco still
baffles me. According to one well-publicized rumor, a Reprise
A&R exec gave the album a listen last summer, then told
Tweedy that releasing Foxtrot in its current form would
be a career ending mistake, the album was too out-there.
With this in mind I sat down with the album intending to
listen as an A&R man might listen; you know, commodifying
each chord, gauging its accessibility to teenage girls,
mining for a radio hit. I counted three. "Kamera":
thunky, driving, anthemic - bound to be a favorite among
shower crooners; "Heavy Metal Drummer": the hook
"I miss the innocence I've known/Playing Kiss covers
beautiful and stoned" - need I say more; "I'm
the Man Who Loves You": playfully discordant, upbeat,
endearing - tempts me to drag the barbecue out of storage
before the ground's thawed. But really, who listens to the
radio expecting to hear good contemporary music anyway?
These three stand out on album that's impressively cohesive
in every sense. Fans will most likely gravitate toward Wilco's
more thought-provoking numbers"Jesus, etc.,"
"Cash Machine," and the lead-off track "I'm
Trying to Break Your Heart" come to mind.
The only thing that will keep Yankee Hotel Foxtrot from
smearing critics' top tens in 2002 is that it already made
their lists in 2001.