splendid > reviews > 4/8/2002
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Format Reviewed: CD

Soundclip: "Ashes of American Flags"

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It's strange to think that a group of closed-minded record executives nearly turned Yankee Hotel Foxtrot into Jeff Tweedy's own Smile. You'd think that the (initial) pre-release hype surrounding the record would have changed their tunes -- but alas, poor judgement won out, and Wilco suddenly found themselves pitted against a headstrong major-label that not only refused to release their record (not in its intended form, anyway), but retained its ownership rights to boot. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and the band was allowed to buy their record back from the folks who, by the looks of it anyway, seemed more than willing to forsake the band's artistic integrity to fuel their own financial gain.

Ironically, the same corporation that denied Yankee Hotel Foxtrot's release some six months ago actually distributes Nonesuch Records, the label that eventually won the take-all-comers battle royale for the rights to release Wilco's latest opus. Now, nearly a year after its intended release date, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the little record that almost never was, will be unleashed on a record-buying public that, to put it mildly, awaits its release with open arms.

Produced by Jim O'Rourke, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a captivating and sometimes surreal journey into the heart of the modern pop idiom. This time around, Wilco are a different band entirely; gone are the sashaying tempos and Rickebacker-toting riffs of A.M., the barrelchested barroom brawn of Being There and the pop-for-pop's-sake sentimentality of Summerteeth. In place of these once-intractable Wilco-isms stands a capricious baroque-pop sound that's not afraid to wear its heart, or its influences, on its figurative sleeve. (Before we proceed, it should be noted that Jim O'Rourke's ever-experimental production work was a major factor in steering the band (and their music) off of traditional paths and into directions they never thought possible.)

The stunning "I am Trying to Break Your Heart" opens the album; its heady mix of Big Star swoon, art-house pomposity and experimental weirdness coupled with beguiling-yet-beautiful lyrics ("I am an American aquarium drinker") not only makes it one of the most impressive aural spectacles of recent memory, but sets the stage for the cavalcade of whimsy that follows. It soon becomes apparent that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is not only devoid of filler -- the mercurial grandeur of first single "Heavy Metal Drummer" is matched note for perfect note by the deceptively simple thump-and-strum of "Kamera", which in turn measures up quite nicely to the effects-laden slice of immaculate pop that is "War on War" -- but that it is a true song-cycle in the classic sense of the term. Elsewhere, Tweedy lets his whiskey-and-honey soaked pipes and imagistic lyrics preside over the funereal dirge of the brilliantly titled "Jesus etc.", before handing the reins to his bandmates for the irony-and-cacophony-drenched "Ashes of American Flags", and letting them run wild on the fiery, heavily Byrds-indebted (think Notorious Byrd Brothers as opposed to Sweetheart of the Rodeo) "Pot Kettle Black". The sheer scope of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is so utterly breathtaking that repeat airings only reinforce its stunning songcraft and otherworldly sonic splendor.

It will take years for the weight of what Wilco have achieved with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to be felt throughout the music industry. In that time period you can expect them to leave legions of followers, scorers of hangers-on and plenty of industry speculation cowering in their wake. It can now honestly be stated that no other band on Earth sounds like Wilco; indeed, it is a most honest and forthright assertion of what they have accomplished here.



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