Thursday, August 23, 2007

[084] Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Album: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
Artist: Wilco
Release Date: September 2001 [internet]//April 2002 [retail]
Label: Nonesuch
Producers: Wilco

"There's bourbon on the breath of the singer you love so much
He takes all his words from the books that you don't read anyway"
- from "Poor Places"

Oh, what a glorious mess!! Proclaimed to be one of the greatest albums of the new millennium by everyone and their mother, Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is the Goodfellas of Avant junkyard AM Gold jazzy Alt-Country Rock. Which is to say it's simultaneously fucking amazing and supremely overrated. But hey, with the drummer getting canned right off the bat, keyboardist Jay Bennett and guest engineer/studio rat Jim O'Rourke at each others' throats throughout recording, and bandleader Jeff Tweedy deciding to fire Bennett after the album was done, you'd have to expect a masterpiece based around chaos and conflict. Did I mention there was documentary film crew filming the whole thing?? Yeah, and how about how, as much as it's worshipped by your Indie-Hippie next door, it's actually not as good as its predecessor, 1999's Summerteeth. I know, I know, the album's a masterpiece, and how dare I, right? Sorry, but if I worked for their record label, and they couldn't sell a pop wonderland like Summerteeth (in the era of Oops, I Did it Again, duh!), I had my bosses over my shoulder whispering about the budgets in the red, and I heard a song like "Radio Cure" at track three, I probably would've dropped them too. Can't have the music without the business, unfortunately.

But look at the gift to the world: YHF is ground zero for artist-controlled internet marketing. They made a weird album, Reprise hated it, but at least they had the decency to give the band the rights to their own music. When the songs started popping up on the file-sharing sites of the time (hey, AudioGalaxy!), Wilco posted the whole album on their website, all while they shopped for a new label to put it out, ya know, the proper way. And whaddyaknow, they got signed by Nonesuch, who's also owned by AOL Time Warner just like Reprise. Good going, suits, paying for the same album twice. Of course, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the commercial disaster with no singles, was a hit, debuting in the top 20 after being available for free for seven months on the internet, and going on to sell 600,000 copies.

But enough of my smack-talking. What about the music?? Well, like I said, it sounds like conflict...smooth, 70's radio rock conflict, raped by an avant-noise loving engineer. Jim O'Rourke hooked up with Jeff Tweedy and had some big ideas for Tweedy's band. First, let's get rid of drummer Ken Coomer in favor of O'Rourke's drummer of choice, a guy named Glenn Kotche that you do not want to mess with, musically. Dude's got a Bachelor's degree in Performance! In Performance! WHAT??!!? Suck on that, really. And he backs it up, banging on anything he can find; there's clanging metal, and water pipes, and woodblocks, and chimes, and xylophones, and damn near everything used as percussion. Kotche, O'Rourke & Tweedy jammed on the side as Loose Fur, and the chemistry of that trio sabotaged the eventual outcome of YHF, especially from where co-songwriter and producer Bennett was concerned. He had plenty of ideas, but Tweedy was now siding with O'Rouke. Jim O famously cut up "Poor Places" until the only sounds left were made by the Loose Fur 3. Yeah, not gonna fly too well around Wilco HQ.

"Poor Places" is a golden ballad though, emerging from the fog sounding like Wings covering Vince Guaraldi's Charlie Brown theme, before it's devoured by radio static. The smoothed-out beyond recognition "Jesus, etc." predicts the band's 2007 snooze-fest Sky Blue Sky, but it's kept afloat by hummingbird strings and delicate pedal steel guitar. "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart" is a sleepyhead classic, hungover with alarm clocks and bells and piano, raining down on you like the coffee tumbling down your esophagus. And I really don't see the problem for the label finding singles; maybe it's the running order. But between "Kamera",
"War On War", "Heavy Metal Drummer" & "Pot Kettle Black", any one of those songs would have been at home on VH-1 or the sort of radio stations that played Beck, Sheryl Crow, and R.E.M. Where would Rock radio's problem lie with "I'm The Man That Loves You", which bounces between Neil Young, The Band & The Rolling Stones??

The album almost seems like Siamese twins trying to tear themselves apart; the 70's pop-loving half not wanting anything to do with the crackpot genius half, but that's where the best stuff is. Despite all the crap and legend I've spewed, this album represents a culmination of the post-Nirvana alternative explosion. Think about it: you had Lo-fi guitar pop like Pavement, Guided By Voices & Sebadoh. You had rootsy junk pop like Beck through Neutral Milk Hotel to a band like Grandaddy. You had new takes on classic models, like Built To Spill, Radiohead or Flaming Lips. And you had classic singer-songwriter stuff like Matthew Sweet or Ben Folds. All those genre threads converge at this album. Wilco blended it all into a towering achievement, one that the fans knew they had in them, and that's what mattered in the end.

01. "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart"
02. "Kamera"
03. "Radio Cure"
04. "War On War"
05. "Jesus, etc."
06. "Ashes Of American Flags"
07. "Heavy Metal Drummer"
08. "I'm The Man Who Loves You"
09. "Pot Kettle Black"
10. "Poor Places"
11. "Reservations"

So, all this black & white footage is taken from Sam Jones' documentary on the making of the album, called I Am Trying To Break Your Heart. I haven't gotten around to seeing it yet, but it's supposed to be the bomb diggity.

"Heavy Metal Drummer" [video/from the documentary]

- BONUS: "War On War" [live on Letterman]
- BONUS: The making of "Poor Places" [from the documentary]
- BONUS: The making of "Reservations" [from the documentary]
- BONUS: documentary opening credits, featuring the acoustic version of "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart"
- BONUS: "Pot Kettle Black" [live - from the documentary]
- BONUS: "Radio Cure" [live - from the documentary]

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