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Monday, May 14, 2012

Wilco, "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot"

"Yankee Hotel Foxtrot"
Nonesuch (2002)

1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die & 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die

It is 2002. You are an executive at Reprise records and you have been presented with "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," the fourth album from Wilco, a band that albeit critically favored, is not exactly a threat for going platinum. The album features non-sequitur lyrics, less-than-clean production and button-pushing song titles like "Ashes of American Flags." Would you be excited to release this album?

Of course, you probably said "yes," because "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" became one of the most acclaimed releases of the millennium, and, even if you've never heard of the group, it's included in two compilations of the best albums ever so it must be worth a shot. My only purpose in the previous paragraph is to give Reprise a break. They took a lot of crap for the choice not to release "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" and subsequently part with Wilco. Labels have to make money at some point and they make tough decisions based on the premise of capitalism, and are often labeled as corporate dictators as a result. All that being said, it was still really dumb to not release this record, of all records.

By the time Nonesuch (ironically owned by Warner, as is Reprise) released "Yankee," the album had been available on the band's website for nearly a year, and yet it still sold 55,000 copies during its first week. I would argue that Wilco's popularity hinges on its being relatable; vocalist Jeff Tweedy avoids narrative lyrics (much like psychedelic artists), but his demure approach to his subjects makes statements like "Last cigarettes are all you can get, turning your orbit around" ("Jesus, Etc.") more personal, even if it doesn't make sense out of context. The band sounds less highfalutin and therefore less high strung than say, The Arcade Fire.

Although the sympathetic nature of the band's output is present throughout its discography, the element that makes "Yankee" its best release is the ever-present theme of Tweedy's adoration for radio. From the opening static crackle of first track "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart" to the final lyric-less minutes of closer "Reservations," the warble of radio tuning makes appearances throughout. The theme is especially upfront during the finale of "Poor Places," where the static reaches its loudest point and a detached female voice reads the album's title repeatedly.

The references to radio (musical and otherwise) are a key part of the record because the band has a decidedly simple instrumental approach. Tweedy and the album's other key member, Jay Bennet (kicked out of the band following the recording), stick to basic strumming on the acoustic guitar (with occasional instances of static-y shredding) and the often tom-heavy percussion parts, albeit not typical, aren't as dramatic as titles like "Heavy Metal Drummer" might suggest. I give the band the benefit of the doubt here; it's not a lack of talent but dedication to the mood driving the approach.

As mentioned in 1001 Albums, this record has benefitted from its little-guy-versus-big-conglomerate reputation, but it's still Wilco's best effort regardless. Genre-wise, "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" is off kilter enough for alt fans, but well-grounded enough for mainstream rock fans as well.

INTERESTING FACT: The recording of the woman reading "yankee hotel foxtrot" repeatedly was taken from a recording released by the Irdial Conet Project. The project collected shortwave radio broadcasts from unnamed frequencies, believed to be secret communications from government agencies sending messages to undercover agents in the field, and arranged them as an artistic piece. Compiling conspiracy theory-type stuff into avant-garde art? Awesome.

Poor Places by Wilco on Grooveshark

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