In revisiting past record reviews I’ve had published on Wilco albums through the years only one failed to capture my attention for more than a few minutes, my least favorite Wilco album, Sky Blue Sky. I’ve got to give it to the band for their consistency. I’ll leave it to you to give it to me for my own. Following is a review of Yankee Foxtrot Hotel that appeared on a now long-defunct music blog that’s better left forgotten.
The experience of listening to any new Wilco album is fraught with mixed emotions. I like the fact that they’re a band that knows what it means to at least want to be great. They’re a guitar-based band with the sonic core of that strain of Classic Rock, that began with Bob Dylan’s landmark electric albums and ran through The Band, the Stones’ Mick Taylor era, and Neil Young. Like those artists they’ve got an experimental bent, even pulling in the occasional Pet Sounds, minimalist, and “European” influences. They can rock pretty hard, in the way their denim-clad forefathers did, and they seem like they actually read books—high-brow novels, history tomes, and the like. They use authentic instruments: vintage guitars and organs that make squeaky, clicky noises during the quiet songs. I’m a sucker for that stuff!
Overlooking the nonsense of critics and hipster kidz who feel the need to throw around the term electronics when discussing the band’s records, as if we’re living in the time of Thomas Edison and musicians are first experimenting with electricity, there are some things that gnaw at me as soon as I hit PLAY on any Wilco album. Primarily, I’m bugged by the fact that this band I should love is nothing more than a band I like. Even the songs I start out loving fade into the Like bin. There’s a sameness to the music of Wilco that too readily dictates which songs I’m going to like and which songs I’ll quickly skip.
The songs I like are always the 1960s-cum-Replacements-cum-ELO 2-chord stomps with cool guitar and keyboard textures underpinning a deliberate bassline. Jeff Tweedy puts his reedy voice to best use on these numbers with lyrics about his downer-popping, screwed up, seemingly eternally recent past. The new album’s “Kamera” and “I’m the Man Who Loves You” each fit that bill. A few weeks ago, if you asked me whether I liked those songs I would have answered, “Are you kidding me? I love them!” Shoot, “I’m the Man Who Loves You” even works in a soaring horn section. Rock nerds live for that stuff! If you ask me today, though, my enthusiasm would be tempered, thanks to the band’s other main song template.
That other main song template I find myself skipping over on Wilco’s new album is their mellow style, characterized by a bed of swirling Wurlitzer organ, tinkling piano, and Tweedy singing in the voice of a dying Confederate soldier taking his last breaths while clutching his newborn son to his chest. When songs like “Radio Cure” and “Ashes of American Flags” start up I first try to gauge how their latest effort at writing a “Whispering Pines” will stack up before briefly trying to imagine what it must be like to prefer downers to uppers. Then I hit SKIP. Life’s too short for more than one of those songs on any artist’s album. Wilco’s too decent an attempted great band, too loaded with gently chugging numbers like “War on War” to drag listeners down with that stuff.
The band also finds time to indulge in a wholly experimental side, which I can appreciate. It’s yet another part of their attempted greatness. Yankee Foxtrot Hotel, for instance, kicks off with “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” which makes use of found sounds. I like it. I even admire the sickening self-indulgence of “Reservations.” The production shifts are ambitious and well done, if loaded with all the proctomusicalogical baggage a Mitchell Froom could imagine. As much as I appreciate this kind of stuff, though, it inevitably makes me hate myself, like I feel after eating an entire Entenmann’s Banana Cake.
I’ll keep trying with Wilco and continue digging the really enjoyable songs, especially when I give their albums a couple of months off between spins, to keep them fresh.