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Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch)

After 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 rejoiced.

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 recently—long after Wilco signed on with Nonesuch Records and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot disappeared from their web site—that 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.

Daniel Schulman

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[email protected] | March 2002 | Issue 24
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Post-Post punk? Alt-Country? Neo-New Wave? Forget the Categories and listen.