#493- Wilco- Yankee Hotel Foxtrot- 2002

yankee hotel

The Artists:

wilco

Jeff Tweedy was born in Belleville, Illinois in 1967.

Jeff Tweedy

Jeff Tweedy

When he was 14, his friend Jay Farrar, who had put together a band with his two brothers, needed a fourth member to be eligible to compete in a “Battle of the Bands” competition. He invited Jeff to join since he could play guitar.

They named their band The Piebes, then changed it to The Primitives, and then after finding out there was another band with that name, they settled on the name Uncle Tupelo.  Both Tweedy and Ferrar were fans of country and punk music, so once they started to put a “sound” together they started playing country music with a punk sensibility.

uncle-tupelo-sapphire-jim-leatherman

Uncle Tupelo

By 1988, the band was quickly gaining popularity and hired a manager in Tony Margherita.  The next year, they recorded a 10 song demo cassette.  They were being called by many critics the best unsigned band around.  Finally, they signed a deal with the independent label, Rockville Records.

Uncle Tupelo garnered critical praise and maintained a cult following on the alternative-country scene.  The band released 3 albums on Rockville: No Depression, Still Feel Gone, and March 16-20, 1992.  They began having issues with the label and felt that they were not being paid the royalties due to them, so they left Rockville and signed with Sire Records.

After the band released one album on Sire, Anodyne, Jay Ferrar called Margherita and informed him that the band was finished due to he and Tweedy not getting along anymore.  Uncle Tupelo broke into two groups.  Farrar started a band called Son Volt.  Joining him were former Uncle Tupelo drummer Mike Heidorn, and brothers Jim and Dave Boquist.

Son Volt

Son Volt

Tweedy formed Wilco with the rest of the members of Uncle Tupelo, bassist John Stirratt, multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston, and drummer Ken Coomer, taking the name “Wilco” from the military radio acronym for “will comply.”  Tony Margherita stayed with Tweedy and became Wilco’s manager. The band signed with Reprise Records and immediately went to work on recording their first album.

They released the album, A.M. in early 1995. Tweedy’s main hope was to outdo Son Volt’s debut album, Trace, which was released around the same time. While A.M. received mostly warm reviews, it did not get the ecstatic reaction that Son Volt’s album did.  Also, Trace outsold A.M. 2 to 1. The band considered the album a failure.

am

Personally I think A.M. starts off great and sounds like what Wilco would later do, but the second half of the album is a kind of retread of Uncle Tupelo’s sound and is a pretty mediocre album as a whole.

After the release of A.M., Wilco added a new member in Jay Bennett.

bennett

Jay Bennett

Bennett was born in 1963 just outside of Chicago.  He had gained a reputation as a fantastic musician and songwriter in the Chicago area, playing with several bands such as Titanic Love Affair.  Bennett was brought in to play synthesizers and keyboards and to arrange Tweedy’s songs.

As the band’s sessions for their second album began, Max Johnston decided to quit the band feeling that Bennett had taken over his role.  They completed recording the album titled Being There and had enough tracks for a double album. The band went to Reprise and got them to agree to release the album as a double album, yet charge the customer only the price of a single album.  They waved their royalties on the album to get the label to agree to the deal.  It is estimated that they lost over half a million dollars due to the arrangement since Being There turned out to be very successful critically and commercially.

wilco_being_there

Being There is an amazing album.  Many years from now once I’ve completed going through these 500 albums I want to review other great albums.  This is one that I’d like to review, because it is a terrific album and I highly recommend it.

In 1999, Wilco was nominated for a Grammy for joining with British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg on an album of unrecorded Woody Guthrie penned songs, Mermaid Avenue.

album-mermaid-avenue

The album was one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the 90’s.  I’ve read many reviews of the album that say Billy Bragg’s songs capture the spirit of Woody Guthrie while Wilco does “Wilco” songs with Woody Guthrie lyrics.  While this may be the case, personally, I prefer the Wilco tracks on Mermaid Avenue, but that is not to say that I don’t enjoy Billy Bragg’s songs, too. Overall it is a very good album.

A few months later, Wilco released their third studio album, Summerteeth.

Summerteeth-cover

It was a bit of a departure for the band, as they had normally recorded the music live, but this time they used overdubs on most of the albums’ tracks.  During the recording, they added multi-instrumentalist Leroy Bach to the band. The album received high critical praise, but it was not a commercial success, selling way fewer albums than Being There had.

They re-joined Billy Bragg for Mermaid Avenue Volume II in the year 2000.

mermaid 2

Volume II still got mostly good reviews from critics, but it was not nearly as beloved as the first album was.

In late 2000, Tweedy started working on a side project, putting together a band called Loose Fur that he formed with Jim O’Rourke (an instrumentalist that Tweedy had become a fan of through his 1999 album Bad Timing) and drummer Glenn Kotche.

At the same time, Wilco was recording demo sessions for their next album at The Loft, a studio in Chicago that the band had purchased together so that they could stay far away from the record label’s prying eyes.

As they began recording what would become Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, they were a band with some notoriety, but they still needed to come out with an album to solidify their reputation as a major player in the recording industry. Tweedy & Co. were wanting the next album to be more experimental and better than anything they’d done before.  During recording, Tweedy began growing tired of Ken Coomer’s inability to get the sound he wanted on drums, and replaced him with Kotche.  Wilco now consisted of Tweedy, Bennett, Stirratt, Bach, and Kotche.

The entire sessions of the album that would become Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and the aftermath are chronicled in the documentary feature I Am Trying to Break Your Heart directed by photographer Sam Jones.

Wilco-I-Am-Trying-To-Break-Your-Heart

I highly recommend the movie as it is one of the best documents of the making of an album.  The film documented the recording, the problems they had with the record label, and the problems that started with Tweedy and Bennett.

During the album’s sessions, Tweedy grew tired of Jay Bennett’s insistence on mixing the album.  Tweedy felt that Bennett was not understanding how he wanted the album mixed, and decided to bring in his Loose Fur collaborator Jim O’Rourke to mix the rest of the album.  One of the films’ most notable scenes shows Bennett trying to explain himself even after Tweedy has given up the argument and is agreeing with him.  You can tell from that scene that they were not going to be working together much longer.

After recording was finished the band presented Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to their record label.  At that time, Reprise was owned by Time Warner, who was in the process of merging with AOL, and they had started cutting jobs to save money before the merger. One of the people whose job was cut was Howie Klein, the president of Reprise, who was a big Wilco fan.  Replacing him in the interim was David Kahne, who was not a big Wilco fan, and thought that the album that they had delivered was totally noncommercial.  The album was shelved, and eventually they asked Wilco to sign with another label to cut more costs. The band was fine with leaving the label as long as they could keep the master tapes of the album. They were even willing to pay for the rights, but ultimately the label just wanted them to leave, so they gave them the album for free.

I imagine the execs put this welcome mat out anytime they heard Wilco was coming over.

I imagine the Reprise execs put this welcome mat out anytime they heard Wilco was coming over.

These issues brought a lot of publicity for the band, and lots of buzz started going around about this “uncommercial” Wilco album.  A lot of anticipation had been built up for its eventual release. The band announced that they would self-release the album by download on their website with the date of release being September 11, 2001.  Of course, certain events interrupted that happening, but that date would remain intertwined with the album and people’s interpretations of Jeff Tweedy’s lyrics.

After the tracks stated showing up as pirated downloads, the band finally released the album, streaming it on their website.  Despite the album being available to listen to on their website, there were still a lot of independent record labels clamoring to release it.  The band settled on Nonesuch Records, another subsidiary of Time Warner, meaning that the parent company paid for the album twice.  Don’t you just love the way corporate America works?

The Album Cover:

The front cover has the now iconic photo by Sam Jones of Chicago’s Marina City.  It is shot in glorious black and white with the title and band name in all lowercase.

yankee hotel

Marina City consists of these two corncob looking buildings which contain apartments, offices, and a hotel.  There is an attached marina which gave the buildings their name.

Marina_City_-_Chicago,_Illinois

The back cover of the LP has a beautiful black and white view of downtown Chicago’s skyline with the track listing in the center.

back cover

The LP is a gatefold with various, quite colorful, pictures of the Chicago area.  These same pictures are included in the CD booklet.

gatfold

The innersleeves include the lyrics on one side and some more pictures from around Chicago with album credits on the other side.  The LP also comes with a copy of the CD in a cardboard sleeve.  Really the whole LP package is magnificent.

The Album:

I am reviewing the vinyl Double LP release of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot which I don’t believe was released until 2008 by Nonesuch Records.  I also own the original 2002 CD release and the CD which was included with the LP.

(Note: All song titles are linked to Youtube clips of the songs.  As always, I most recommend buying the vinyl version for best listening experience.  I have to say that the vinyl for this album is one of the best masterings of a modern vinyl LP that I’ve heard, 180 gram discs that are completely void of any pops or clicks, and plus that magnificent packaging.)

Every album so far that I’ve reviewed has a great opening track, and this one is no different. “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” starts the album off with almost psychedelic sound effects. Really when you listen to it, the music has no meter whatsoever, it just comes and goes, nothing really repeats other than the meter of Tweedy’s singing.  Jeff’s voice is craggy and purposely rough along with the unstructured almost post-rock sound of the music makes this an awesome opening track.

The lyrics at first glance seem to make no sense “Take off your Band-Aid because I don’t believe in touchdowns.”

This guy doesn’t believe in touchdowns either.

After several listenings it started to more sense to me.  I think it is written from the point of view of an alcoholic.  The opening verse he calls himself an “aquarium drinker” and in the last verse he calls himself a “disposable dixie cup drinker.” He went from at one point drinking the equivalent of an aquarium to barely drinking at all, a dixie cup-ful.  Tweedy has said that he did have issues with alcohol before giving it up completely after meeting his wife.  The nonsensical lyrics are the kind of thing someone drunk and out of their mind would ramble on about, while the “I am trying to break your heart” lyric seems to be his acknowledgement that he knows his problems with drinking are hurting the person closest to him, but he is too addicted to care.  At the end when he is a “dixie cup” drinker he now regrets those things he did, exemplified when he says “what was I thinking when I let go of you?”  Now, this is just my interpretation.  Jeff Tweedy may not have meant any of this, but I can’t find a better explanation on the internet.

Kamera” follows the unstructured sound of “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” with a much more pop oriented song.  This was the first song from the album that the uninformed latched on to as song about 9/11.  I think it’s just because it contains the words “war” and “sidewalk.”  Again, Tweedy’s lyrics are usually somewhat cryptic, but I think I understand what this one is getting at.  He wishes he had a camera (the lyric sheet spells the word in the song “camera” but spells the title “Kamera”) that records everything that he does all day, so that he could go back and see what lies he is telling to himself and what memories aren’t really memories, but just things that he has imagined.  Great track.

Included with the Australian release of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was a six song EP that included songs recorded during the album’s sessions.  The EP was eventually available to download on Wilco’s website titled More Like the Moon.  It included an alternate version of “Kamera” titled “Camera.”  It is a harder rocking version of the same song from the album.  However, I prefer the album version to the EP version as the EP version has the vocals drowned in background and music isn’t quite as good.  The entire EP is pretty good, but nothing really good enough to be on the album.

More Like the Moon EP

More Like the Moon EP

Side One of the album ends with “Radio Cure.” They dropped all of the overdubs and sound effects until about minute and a half into the song where static sounds start coming in.  Tweedy’s voice is so raw on this, cracking and croaking by the end. I can definitely see how a record exec would not “get” what is going on here.  It is beautiful in its lack of structure.  It seems to be a song about having to have a long distance relationship.  I think the title refers to him needing to talk to his wife on the phone when he is on the road, and having her words of love come to him over thousands of miles, like radio waves, and using them as a cure for whatever is ailing him.

Side Two opens with “War On War” which was the one single released from the album.  It definitely has the best pop sound yet, although the lyrical content would probably disqualify it from being a pop hit.  The synthesizer flows in and out, and the song begins to break down into noise at the end.  Let me reiterate, this was recorded in early 2001.  It’s not just the title that confused people, but also the lyrics “you have to learn how to die/ If you wanna be alive” sound like something someone would write as a reaction to the war on terror.  I read it as everyone comes to that point in their life where you see death as something that is inevitable, and accepting that it will happen at some point is a way of understanding life.  The “war on war” is the war that you have with yourself over accepting the war between life and death.

Jesus, etc.” is (in my opinion) probably the best song on the album and one of my favorite songs of all time.  A beautiful, sweet track.  It is both synthesized sounding and yet still has a clean, acoustic feeling at the same time, if that makes any sense.  I love the lyrics “you were right about the stars/ each one is a setting sun.”  I really like when a line like that is in a song.  It sets you down in the middle of someone’s life.  It’s as though that you are eavesdropping on someone’s conversation. This is a song that you can just “feel.” I honestly think 20 years from now people will look at this song as one of the greatest love songs of this century.  Great, great stuff.

Ashes of American Flags” is in the same classic feeling of the prior song.  This contains some of Tweedy’s best lyrics.  Of course, Entertainment Weekly made sure to mention in their review of the album that they think this song was about the September 11th attacks.  They also thought that the Marina on the cover was a stand-in for the Twin Towers.  Of course, they knew that was not accurate, but talking about September 11th was the “in” thing to do in early 2002, so of course EW is going to find that correlation.

Actually some people are still trying to capitalize on it in 2013.

Actually some people are still trying to capitalize on it in 2013.

It sounds to me the song is all about renewal and much like “Kamera” it is about wishing to re-do parts of your life e.g.”My lies are always wishes.”  Some people thought this was an anti-patriotism song since he says he wants to “salute the Ashes of American Flags” but the very next line rhymes that with “all the falling leaves/ filling up shopping bags.”  When you combine this with the chorus of “I know I would die/ if I could come back new” he is using falling leaves as a metaphor for reincarnation as they must die for new leaves to sprout, and that’s what he would like for his life. So much of the album is about that same theme, wanting to re-do parts of your life.

As I move to the second LP, Side Three opens with maybe the most famous song off the album, “Heavy Metal Drummer.”  This was actually the first song that I ever heard by Wilco when they performed it on TV in 2002.  It is the one song from the album that I could actually picture being a hit.  This is really the first “story song” on the album, telling the story of his youth. I admit that I pretty much love all songs about nostalgia.  It is definitely the most straightforward song on the album as he reminisces about the days of going to the “landing in the summer” and listening to concerts by heavy metal bands and going home to play KISS cover songs.  I hope this song will be a staple of classic rock radio one day.

I'm not sure if there is are more polar opposite bands than Wilco and KISS.

I’m not sure if there are more polar opposite bands than Wilco and KISS.

I’m The Man Who Loves You” is a sweet song.  While it is a pretty straightforward rock song, there are bits of dissonance thrown in, especially at the end as it builds to a crescendo.  It’s basically another “story song” as he is saying that he trying to write a letter to the girl he loves but can’t put the right words down on paper. He’s wishing he could just take her by the hand and tell her he loves her.  I really like how the horns accentuate the line “I’m the man who loves you” in the last go around of the verses.  I don’t recall hearing any horns anywhere else on the album.

Pot Kettle Black” kind of sounds a little like “War on War,” but Tweedy’s vocals are different here than anywhere else on the album, it’s kind of like he’s whispering.  As the title would allude to, the song is about him talking to himself and how when he writes it’s always about himself.  I like the lyrics “every song is a comeback/ every moment’s a little bit later.”  Not the best song on the album, but still solid.

Side Four opens with “Poor Places.”  I love the lyrics so much: “His fangs have been pulled/ and I really want to see you tonight.”  It is a very beautiful song.  While I say the lyrics are great, I still have no idea what it is about. Most of the song is very melodic, but it builds up towards the end into noise.  The ending of the song includes the sample of the numbers station repeating “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” the phonetic alphabet version of the letters Y.H.F. from which the album gets its title.   I guess it’s the fact that the numbers stations come from unknown origins and that the sound of the woman’s voice is robotic, but it always gives me the heebie jeebies.  For that reason I would skip through this track in the past, but listening to the album several times through for this review, I really feel like that it is close to the best song on the album.

If I imagine the voice is talking about Jeter dancing at the Hilton.

If I imagine the voice is talking about Jeter dancing at the Hilton it is less creepy.

The album comes to and end with “Reservations.”  Tweedy’s voice can sound so heartbroken as he displays on this song.  A scaled down song of sorts that evolves into drone as the last few minutes are sounds and non-melodic instruments. The lyrics really are a heartfelt plea for his lover to understand that any issues he has are his own neuroses and he has no reservations about how much he loves her as he repeats “not about you.”  A solid closer to the album.

Overall, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, would best be described as beautiful, intricate, and expertly crafted.  I’ll use the best word to describe it-masterpiece.  That word gets tossed around too much, but I try my best to not give in to hyperbole, so that means something coming from me.  While Tweedy and Bennett had their problems at the time and the band went through tons of adversity, those things no doubt helped fuel the creativity that made this album so beautiful.

In fact, the main problem Tweedy and Bennett were having were communication issues.  The theme of communication flows through the album as a whole.  On “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” he is trying to say something, but nonsense is coming out. “Kamera,” “War On War” and “Pot Kettle Black” are all about learning to communicate with yourself. “Radio Cure” is about how communication with the person you love can heal your pain.  On “Reservations,” he is trying to communicate the fact that his problems are within himself and not with someone else.  Most notably, they named the album after a sample of a recording of clandestine communication.  While there are many forms of communication that Tweedy was dealing with on the album, I think it was the communication problems with Bennett that fueled his writing on this album.

Aftermath:

Despite the fact that people had already had a chance to download the album for free there was much anticipation for its release. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was released on CD in April 2002 and made it to #13 on the Billboard Albums chart, eventually going gold.  The documentary was released later in 2002.  Both the album and film were universally critically acclaimed.

After the album was completed, Tweedy fired Jay Bennett from the band.  Jeff knew that they weren’t going in the same direction both musically and life-wise.  Bennett went on to record five solo albums before passing away after an overdose of painkillers at the age of 45 in 2009.

Wilco has changed its lineup several times since 2002, but Jeff Tweedy still remains the driving force in the band.  They have released four albums since 2002: A Ghost Is Born (which won Best Alternative Album Grammy in 2004), Sky Blue Sky, Wilco, and The Whole Love. Their self titled album has one of my favorite album covers of the last few years:

Wilco-Wilco-The-Album-473761-755124

What can I say, I’m a sucker for pictures of Camels with party hats.

My take on Rolling Stone’s Take:

RS: “Wilco’s great leap forward was a mix of rock tradition, electronics, oddball rhythms and experimental gestures. Jeff Tweedy’s lyrics pitted hope against doubt, with all bets off. “

Is it just me or does that last sentence sound more like a movie tag line rather than an album review?

Actually, the book has a completely different blurb:

“When Reprise Records refused to release Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco posted it for free on the internet.  Two hundred thousand downloads later, Nonesuch Records (owned by the same company as Reprise) released the album-it became critical and commercial gold.”

Well, those are facts about the release of the album, but it says nothing about why this is one of the 500 greatest albums of all time nor do they say anything about the music at all.  Lotsa help there, guys.

Conclusion:

For a long time I’ve stated that this is the best album of the 00’s.  I may not still agree with that statement, but from top to bottom this has no missteps and has some of the best lyrics of any album ever.  All I know is that I really love this album a lot.

5 stars out of 5, Perfect rating

My ranking of the Rolling Stone 500 that I’ve reviewed thus far:

I have to admit it is very difficult to decide which of the 2 albums that I’ve given a perfect rating to at this point should be at number one as of right now, but if push came to shove, and as much as I love Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, The Stone Roses is just a tiny bit more fun to listen to, so it will hold on to the top spot for now.

1. The Stone Roses- The Stone Roses

2. Wilco- Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

3. Herbie Hancock- Head Hunters

4. Bonnie Raitt- Give It Up

5. Outkast- Aquemini

6. Boz Scaggs- Boz Scaggs

7. Ian Dury- New Boots and Panties!!

8. B.B. King- Live in Cook County Jail

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