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Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

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Artist: Wilco

Album: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Label: Nonesuch

Review date: Apr. 17, 2002

There’s a whole lotta shakin’ goin on and around Wilco’s latest release, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Lots of stories to tell, and lots of people to tell them to. Stories and people, some more interesting than others. The actual album thankfully, is more interesting than all of these stories and people combined.

The first story began late last August, when Wilco ended its six-year relationship with Reprise records after the label decided that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was not "commercially viable" enough to be released as it was. The band refused to bow to the label’s pressure, and bought the master tapes from them for $50,000. Over 30 labels pitched offers to the band, but before they decided to release Yankee Hotel Foxtrot on Nonesuch records, Wilco made it available for free download on their official web site, www.wilcoweb.com. Fans were delighted and sang along to the new songs at shows.

Sure, you might say, label-battles and sing-alongs make for good stories, but they have no lasting presence unless they are recorded in detail by a feature-length documentary. Well, as it turns out, one will be released this summer by budding filmmaker, Sam Jones. Jones, who had complete studio access to the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot sessions, has film clips and a detailed making-of-diary at www.wilcofilm.com.

Ahhh. But there are even better stories, the most exciting of which being Wilco’s new lineup. From the original lineup, only Jeff Tweedy and John Stiratt remain, as guitarist Jay Bennett and drummer Ken Coomer have left the band amicably. This has left full-time openings for drummer Glenn Kotche and multi-instrumentalist Leroy Bach, who are huge, just you wait.

Kotche is one of the most melodic and expressive drummers you’ve never heard of, and he is equally comfortable alongside the free-jazz of Rob Mazurek and Ken Vandermark in the Sinister Luck Ensemble as he is amongst the wistful country odes of Edith Frost. Kotche’s seemingly infinite palette of rhythm is so much of what makes Yankee Hotel Foxtrot the best album of Wilco’s career.

Bach has played baritone sax, piano, guitar, and clavinet with equal ardor in bands as diverse as 5ive Style, Euphone, Liz Phair, John Herndon, and has been part of Wilco’s part-time players club for a while. Check out his piano on 1999’s Summer Teeth and on Wilco’s breathtaking reworking of Woody Guthrie lyrics with Billy Bragg on the 1998’s grammy-nominated Mermaid Ave. sessions. A most-valuable-sideman of the year candidate if there ever was one.

Icing on the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot cake is provided by everyone’s favorite ex-Chicagoan, do-everything booty-shaker/ engineer/ keeper-of-a-discography to-long-to-mention, Mr. Jim O’Rourke, (incidentally, the first producer with whom Wilco has ever worked.) O’Rourke’s recent release, Insignificance, features both Tweedy and Kotche in starring roles.

All hypey-type stories somewhat spoken about, we may turn towards the music:

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s opener, "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart", coalesces from a bit of fuzz and tinkle into a drunken ode, a piano-rock plea for tenderness, that records the trajectory of those fateful evenings when, a couple of drinks in, we are eloquent, graceful, and at times, even romantic. Tweedy’s voice has never sounded so sweet of cigarettes and broken smiles, a bit of Gram Parsons that will hopefully never leave him, as he croons softly over tentative descending chords: "I'm running out in the big city blinking / What was I thinking when I let go of you? / Let's forget about the tongue-tied lightning / Let's undress just like cross-eyed strangers / This is not a joke so please stop smiling / …What was I thinking when I said it didn't hurt?"

The song’s swagger soon turns into heartache, and Kotche’s drums switch from a stumbling backbeat to the freeish clatter of our hero’s fall. Pianos crash and we hear autoharps instead of guitars, and in a beautiful pop-song-falling-apart moment, we get Tweedy’s desperate yelp as the song fades: "I’m the man who loves you."

On "Jesus etc.", Wilco feels more like a free-wheeling ensemble than ever before, with O’Rourke’s swung and plucked strings and Tweedy’s pop-perfection recalling a much more comfortable collaboration than Van Dyke Parks and Brian Wilson could ever have imagined, maybe: "You can rely on me honey / You can come by any time you want / I'll be around / You were right about the stars / Each one is a setting sun / Tall buildings shake / Voices are scared / Singing sad sad songs / Two two chords / Strung down your cheeks / Bitter melodies / Turning your orbit around."

The album’s featured single, "Heavy Metal Drummer", surprisingly, is vintage Being There-era Wilco, a rollicking pop-song with subtle production flourishes, a bit of fun-fun synth, and the perfect chorus: "I miss the innocence I've known / Playing KISS covers beautiful & stoned."

All around, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot proves that Tweedy needn’t be a man alone. With a future-stars-of-Chicago cast of players (with the exception of Jim O’Rourke who resoundingly does not live in Chicago), and a bunch of a pop-songs as hook laden and deceptively simple as they come, the album is as unassuming and as irony-free as a good man can hope for in this day and age. Don’t do yourself the disservice of not buying it just because it’s on Reprise, because it’s not.

By Daniel Dineen

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