Thursday, January 13, 2011

Review: Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)

This is the first time that I will review an album for this blog, and I have chosen one of my top three favourite albums to be the inaugural review.  

Wilco formed in 1994 after the demise of Alternative country band Uncle Tupelo. Their first album, A.M. was criticized for being too similar to their previous sound. Their next two albums, Being There and Summerteeth showed hints of growth, merging their previous sound with more alternative/experimental rock elements. They've been dubbed the American Radiohead, pushing the boundaries of their genre, shunning simple categorization. While popular with critics, and having decent album sales, they weren't huge sellers like their new label president expected. Remember, this was in the early part of the 2000's, where it wasn't unusual for an artist to sell 1 million albums in their first week.

In 2001, shortly after recording of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was completed, Wilco came into conflict with Reprise Record's (A subsidiary of Time Warner) new president David Kahne. Kahne felt that they new album was horrible, was not marketable, and that if Wilco released it, they'd be committing career suicide. Lead singer Jeff Tweedy refused to budge or make any changes, resulting in Wilco being dropped from Reprise. The band managed to negotiate a buyout of their contract, which included the rights to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.  The band began to stream the record on their website after some tracks leaked, while touring and searching for a new label. They eventually settled on Nonesuch Records, another subsidiary of time Warner, finally releasing it in 2002. So, in essence, Time Warner paid for the album twice. Ridiculous, but that was the story of the music industry in the past decade.

So, the album had a lot of hype surrounding it, but could it live up to it? Who would be vindicated at the end, Kahne or Wilco?

"I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" opens the album. It is the second longest song on the album, at 6:56, and lets the listener know what they can expect. It's built around a simple three-chord guitar melody mixed with some electronic sounds juxtaposing the traditional with the avant-garde. Lyrically the song doesn't make sense at first, with lines "I am an American aquarium drinker" and "take off your bandage cause I don't believe in touchdowns," but it becomes more clear as the song builds to its climax, Tweedy saying "I'm the man who loves you" over feedback.  Wilco songs peak around seven minutes long, with more on that later.

The album moves back and forth between experimental rock pieces, songs that are more influenced by their earlier sound, and occasionally combining the two together. "Kamera" and "Jesus etc." are more traditional songs, but have strong songwriting to make them feel less like filler. In addition to being the most accessible songs, they are also some of the strongest tracks on the album. "War on War" and "Ashes of American Flags" start off like folk rock songs, but midway through, switch into something different completely, electronic effects taking over, completely changing the mood. The unsung hero of this album is Jim O'Rourke, who produced and mixed the album alongside the band.  Anybody can add electronics, noise, and samples to their songs, but it takes a skilled producer and mixer to make it sound coherent.

There is a flaw on the album, and it concerns the last two tracks, "Poor Places" and "Reservations." Remember earlier when I said that Wilco songs peak around seven minutes?   Otherwise, you end up with "Reservations", which is seven and a half minutes long, with over half of it being just noise. The first half of the song is fine, but the end keeps going on and on. Ideally, the track would have either been cut in half, or completely cut from the album. "Poor Places" however, feels more like an ideal conclusion to the album, ending with a loop of feedback and a sampled voice repeating the album's title. But, this complaint is minuscule, and does not reduce my enjoyment of this album.

Wilco won out in the end. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot finished high on many critic's "Best of the year list," was named one of the top albums of the decade by Rolling Stone magazine (#3 if I recall), and is also Wilco's best selling album to date, being certified Gold. I wonder if David Kahne was fired for kicking Wilco off the label. It's proof that many music executives are out of touch with what the public wishes to listen to, which is why overall sales have slipped. I know that we can't change the habits of most of the buying public, who prefer the musical equivalent of a Big Mac and Fries, but there is s a growing majority of people who like to be challenged by the music they listen to. They want something different from the norm, something that they haven't heard before. Start catering to that group.

This album is one of my top five favorite albums of all-time. Strong musicianship and lyrics, incredibly polished, hits an emotional core, and unlike anything I've ever heard before. Fans of Radiohead, Pink Floyd, Neutral Milk Hotel, or Arcade Fire should give this album a listen.

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