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Old 02-05-2009, 08:03 AM   #11 (permalink)
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Location: Toronto, Ontario
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Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch; 2002)

I admit I might have over thought my first review for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an album worth praising and analyzing. At the end of the 90s, soon after Summerteeth, something strange happened to Wilco, a train of circumstances that create a story that alone propels an album to classic status. It’s a case of “the lead singer has a vision so the rest of the band better comply or **** off,” a-la My Bloody Valentine in Loveless albeit My Bloody Valentine are still the same band going in as they were coming out. But the comparisons still apply. Just like Loveless, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot took about two years between its creation and its release; there were money issues, illnesses (migraines for Tweedy and insomnia for Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine) and the end result was an album that explored new sonic landscapes.

This is where the story gets good: thinking that the album had no “pop appeal,” Wilco’s label for the past three albums, Reprise, refused to release it. So they took their demos and went to Reprise’s hotter, smarter little sister Nonesuch Records, and the album gets released in 2002 to both critical and popular acclaim, becoming Wilco’s highest selling album at the time. I’m not sure who said it, but I once heard someone say that Tweedy was the first individual to successfully mix Folk/Country with a laptop. But don’t fear, people – this isn’t the second coming of Cotton Eyed Joe. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is instead a masterpiece of song structure and progression, easily the band’s defining moment and pinnacle. The most amazing thing is that nothing on Yankee Hotel sounds like anything that came before it, not even Summerteeth. The songs are so dense that even the more straightforward tracks like Kamera and Pot Kettle Black would have been out of place in anything that came before, and to be honest, anything that came after. Thank Jim O’Rourke, who once co-produced Stereolab’s fantastic “Emperor Tomato Ketchup.”

Most people criticise Yankee Hotel for its predominantly low-key tracks, making the album boring or uninteresting. It honestly boggles my mind, but I think I understand what happened. Most new listeners trying to get into Wilco are taught that the band is a mix of alternative, country, and sometimes psychedelia. When “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” comes on, most of these people don’t know what’s happening, and the confusion only builds up in the next 6 minutes. It also happened to people who listened to Summerteeth or A.M shortly before jumping into Yankee Hotel. When they don’t hear “Can’t Stand It” or “I Must Be High” right away, they are likewise confused. It doesn’t help that the lyrics make no real sense, and just when you think you have the album pinned down, Kamera comes on and ****s up the entire system again. So, for the first three tracks, two of which are over five minutes, the listener doesn’t know what to believe. It’s just too much of a mind****. So, mix low-key songs with questionable production and wtf lyrics and you’ve got the first few minutes of Yankee Hotel. This isn’t alt country! Then there are the more patient listeners who get the album right away, or who thrive in being tossed from one idea to the next – who get that there’s more to the album than they’ve been led to believe. And there is.

Tweedy is no longer singing about the same people and emotions with the same immediacy as Wilco’s preceding releases. He’s singing about them under a veil of static and interference, as if his mind was being affected by the electronic distortions that accompany each track.

I wholeheartedly believe that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a classic. I just know that generations from now people will appreciate it much more than it is now. From its production and release story, to its song hooks and progression, and to its minimalist album cover, everything about the album spells out modern classic. We just don’t all get it yet.

So, yes, I would call this their OK Computer; their most successful album, where the band perfect its sound and hasn’t since been able to top the achievement. I would also call it their Sgt. Pepper’s LHCB for its experimentation. From this point on the band will sound more cohesive but less interesting, like the Beatles in Abbey Road.
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