Recording of June 2002: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

WILCO: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
Nonesuch 79669-2 (CD). 2002. Wilco, prods.; Jim O'Rourke, mix. AAD? TT: 51:51
Performance ****
Sonics ****

Ever since he and partner Jay Farrar broke up the alternative-country band Uncle Tupelo in 1994, Jeff Tweedy has fashioned quite a career with his subsequent band, Wilco.

Originally made up of former UT members—drummer Ken Coomer, multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston, and bassist John Stirrat—Wilco began as a fairly straight-ahead rock/country-rock band, and picked up where Uncle Tupelo had left off. Wilco's first album, A.M. (1995), has songs like "Box Full of Letters," "I Must Be High," and "Passenger Side"—exactly the kind of easily accessible pop tunes Tweedy had written for UT, and, in the end, part of the reason he and the harder-edged songwriting of Farrar couldn't co-exist in the same band.

From there, things began to get weird. Wilco's next album, Being There (1996)—a rare (in today's music business) double album—was, to use the obligatory double-album cliché, a "sprawling" 19-song exploration of Tweedy's growing confidence as the band's source of original songs. It also marked the debut of guitarist-keyboardist Jay Bennett, who would become a large part of Wilco's sound on the next record, Summerteeth (1999).

It was with Summerteeth that Wilco began taking a lot more chances. Gone were any vestiges of UT-styled twang. In their place were guitar-based rock-pop songs of a darker hue, some ("She's a Jar") with obscure, "Jabberwocky"-ish lyrics, and others ("via Chicago") with such grimly introspective lines as "I dreamed about killing you again last night / and it felt alright to me." There were also numbers like "Pieholden Suite," in which Tweedy began to fulfill his ambition of working with larger canvases that defied convenient stylistic pigeonholes. Summerteeth also had its share of blips, bleeps, tape loops, and other forms of near-found noise.

In between, Wilco had cut Mermaid Avenue, an album of previously unpublished lyrics by Woody Guthrie set to new music by the band and collaborator Billy Bragg. (Vol.2 came out in 2000.) With its simple yet affecting chorus hook, the album's best-known tune, "California Stars," was easily identifiable as a Tweedy original.

On Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco continues down the fork in the road they first took with Summerteeth. In some ways an exploration of sound for sound's sake, YHF is more about textures than songs, more about indulging the dark side of Tweedy's songwriting, more about trying to make an indefinable record than an easily accessible sales star. The album's challenging sound did not make the powers-that-be at Reprise Records happy. They wanted changes, which the band rejected. Hence Wilco's move to Nonesuch, a label that had never before signed a rock band (see the Wilco feature on p.61).

This dark, mostly quiet album's opening track, "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart," begins slowly, in fits and starts, with a buzz of feedback followed by keyboard effects, strummed guitar, and bits of drumming. From there, the light and dark of Tweedy's songwriting and Jim O'Rourke's mixing alternate. "Kamera" is a fairly straightforward, three-and-a-half-minute folk-rock song driven by acoustic guitar, with a marimba (or keyboard-simulated marimba) keeping time and adding accents. "Radio Cure" mixes burbles, a toy piano, and deliberate touches of static with Tweedy's dirgey vocals. "War on War"—powered by acoustic guitars, chant-like repetitions of the title, and a wonderfully unruly, growling keyboard effect—is one of the album's singles-in-waiting. It's followed by "Jesus, etc.," with sweet touches of violin and pedal-steel guitar (or, again, a keyboard effect that sounds like pedal-steel).

As it has on every one of his previous albums, Tweedy's Beatles jones rises on YHF, in the fragile, evenly paced melody of "Ashes of American Flags." (The song titles often have little or nothing to do with the lyrics.) It's here that the unnamed dread hanging over the entire album, some dark night of the soul, appears in its starkest form: "I'm down on my hands and knees / every time the doorbell rings / I shake like a toothache / When I hear myself sing...My lies are only wishes." The song dissolves in a blizzard of noise.

That's followed by Yankee Hotel Foxtrot's only peppy single, "Heavy Metal Drummer," in which Tweedy sings in a clear voice about a girlfriend who "fell in love with the drummer," misses "the innocence I have known," and plays KISS covers "beautiful and stoned."

In the upward-lifting melody of the short, elegiac final track, "Reservations," Tweedy—who on Summerteeth sang "nothingsevergonnastandinmyway(again)"—opens with the one-two punch of "How can I convince you it's me I don't like?" before drifting into a chorus reminiscent of Brian Wilson's "God Only Knows" that repeats, "I've got reservations / About so many things / Not about you." A coda of sounds—distant keyboard tinkling, ominous piano chords, organ flourishes—appropriately ends this portentious album.

Though it's unlikely to attract new fans to Wilco's increasingly edgy artistic vision, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is the sound of a band marking one frontier of its territory. A record with this much weird scope and ambition, however failed or well-realized, opens a million doors for the future. After this, almost any direction would seem like a natural progression.—Robert Baird