Wilco are not a new band. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is not a new album. And yet, I had never heard either of them until a very recent second-hand-CD purchase. I bought YHF for a paltry $6 in a small New York record store, and thus far it has far surpassed that low valuation.
Wilco, who have been running since 1994, are Chicago-ites whose music meanders between the ‘alternative’ genre lines like so much other stuff does. However, this is a band who are far more talented than many of their stylistic compatriots, and YHF is a ringing endorsement of them as a band. The album itself caused a big stir upon its 2002 release as Wilco’s then-record label dismissed them and refused to release the record. After securing the rights to the album, the band went on to stream the album on the internet for free (a practice which has become more and more common of late) before finding a new label and getting the album out to the masses.
And boy, is it ever a good thing that we have access to this record. A great listen start to finish, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is anchored in a musical region somewhere between The Smiths and The Velvet Underground, with glimpses of all sorts of other styles in between. But far from being a scattergun effort from a band unsure of themselves, YHF is a very self-aware album which shows frontman Jeff Tweedy’s gift for melody-making.
The lengthy opener (‘I Am Trying To Break Your Heart) and closer (‘Reservations’) give the album almost post-rock bookends full of ambient guitars and slow fade-outs. However, the record’s core is a fusion of catchy alternative hooks comparable with (and maybe even better than) The Shins or Belle & Sebastian. The excellent ‘Jesus Etc.’ and ‘Heavy Metal Drummer’ feature quasi-comedic lyrics beneath their bouncy melodies: “Tall buildings shake/Voices escape singing sad sad songs/Tuned to chords strung down your bitter cheeks/Bitter melodies turning your orbit around” (‘Jesus, Etc.’).
These catchier numbers are nicely offset by some darker numbers like ‘Ashes of American Flags’ and ‘War on War’. Despite their slightly more maudlin tune and subject matter respectively, they remain memorable and enjoyable listen upon listen. Some of the more experimental moments such as in the aforementioned ‘Ashes…’ do lag somewhat, but smack of a band enjoying themselves on record which is refreshing for an age in which everyone seems to be deadly serious.
Overall, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a great album which has been gettin’ mad spins on my iTunes and has been a strong enough record to make me interested in Wilco’s other output. This may be Wilco’s fourth album, but on this evidence fading is not an option. Awesome listening.
Sickest tracks: ‘Jesus, Etc.’, ‘Heavy Metal Drummer’, ‘Kamera’.
If you like this, you’ll also like: The Shins – Chutes Too Narrow, The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground & Nico, The White Stripes – White Blood Cells.