Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Revisited: Wilco

Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is one of my favorite records, and one that I find myself constantly returning to. I recently watched Sam Jones' fantastic I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film about Wilco; the experience was very enlightening. I had no idea how much tumult surrounded the creation and release of this beloved record. I'd recommend listening to the record first, then checking out the doc. Without further ado, here are some thoughts on one of the decade's best records, and Wilco's finest album.

Re-posted from In Review Online. A tangible loneliness pervades Wilco’s fourth album, 2002's landmark Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. From the stark apartment buildings adorning the cover to the defeat in Jeff Tweedy’s weary delivery, the emotion is tantamount in importance to any musical element on the album. The desolate sonic palette from which the record is painted is not only a meditation on post 9-11 America, but also a thorough reflection on the difficulty the band faced at the time, both with themselves and their management.

Aside from its significance in marking Wilco’s further sonic exploration, YHF represents a paradigm shift that forever altered the band’s trajectory. Extensively documented in Sam Jones’ documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film about Wilco, multiple personnel changes were undergone shortly before and immediately after the album’s recording. Percussionist extraordinaire Glenn Kotche signed on as drummer (thanks to mutual friend Jim O’Rourke), and lead guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett was dismissed from the band after increasing friction with Tweedy. Bennett was serving as co-producer and mixer, and his pop-oriented mixes were in opposition to the direction Tweedy wanted to take. Against Bennett’s knowledge, Jim O’Rourke was brought in to remix “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” the results of which impressed all involved, and earned him chief mixing duty. Agitation continued throughout the process, and Bennett was asked to leave the band soon after the album was completed.

Crafting what is definitely their most experimental record to date, the band utilized innovative percussion (thanks to Kotche), field recordings (including the eerie radio transmissions from “Poor Places” that gave the album its title), and various atmosphere-enhancing textures. Early demos (again, see: Jones’ illuminating documentary) indicated that this very well could have continued in the power-pop vein of Summerteeth. Thankfully, Tweedy’s desire to push the band’s boundaries won over Bennett’s traditionalist bent. It’s a masterfully paced song cycle that never compromises tunefulness for the sake of experimentation. Even on the most nontraditional tracks, Tweedy’s melodic gifts shine, demonstrating that Wilco will always be, in essence, a pop band.

Despite this, the label execs at Reprise were so shocked by what they heard that the record was shelved indefinitely, and the label dropped the band. However, after floating around in limbo for several months-- and after fervent fan word-of-mouth precipitated by the band's brave decision to stream the album on their website – Nonesuch (the band’s current home) adopted them. Ironically, Warner Brothers is the parent company of both Reprise and Nonesuch.

Tweedy’s lyricism is direct and wounded on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, from the opening declarations of “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” to the heartbreaking confessions of “Reservations.” It’s appropriate that the bitterly tongue-in-cheek “How to Fight Loneliness” appeared on the preceding Summerteeth, as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot finds Jeff Tweedy tired of pretending, now acquiescing with grand gestures of resignation. A sprawling record marked with profound sentiment and fascinating musical direction, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is, in my opinion, Wilco’s best and most important record.



Ahip said...

Ahhh, man, IATTBYH is such a good documentary. Wilco: what an AMAZING band. And, I agree, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is so good. It's probably one of my favorite albums. I recently revisited it again, too, after having put it on the backburner for a while. But, it always pushes its way to the front, time after time, and it never ceases to impress me. Tweedy's writing is pure poetry.

Have you listened to the latest album?


Lukas said...

Glad that you share my opinion, haha. Yeah, I've heard Wilco's latest; there's a review up for it a few posts before this one if you want to know my thoughts in full. Overall, I'd say it's a pretty good record, but not z great one like YHF