Dec 152011

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.


  15 Responses to “Wilco, Then and Now: Yankee Foxtrot Hotel

  1. mockcarr

    Do you ever spend much time interpreting Tweedy’s lyrics?

  2. Not for the boring songs. Am I missing something?

  3. cliff sovinsanity

    That’s a fair assessment of the album. While I don’t mind “Ashes”, a song like “Radio Cure” is the product of too many painkillers. The chorus has nice parts but the verses “…cheer up honey” part is downright annoying. Tweedy was not in a good place at this time. It’s all on display in the movie. There is very little joy on this album which wasn’t the case for the first three records.
    I can understand why WB didn’t want to release the album. Not that I necessarily agree with their decision. It should not have come as a surprise to BOTH parties. To hold this album in some kind of revere is for the Tweedy-philes only. A decent 4 out of 5 star album.

  4. Like the Replacements, I am probably too far in the tank for Wilco, but I like several songs off Sky Blue Sky — Impossible Germany, Hate it Here, and What Light are pretty good.

  5. Sky Blue Sky is actually the last Wilco album I wholeheartedly love. I think aesthetically, it’s right on: Television meets The Band soundtracking Tweedy’s post-rehab embrace of domestic bliss. Feelings.

    I recognize the YHF is a tad overrated and it was never my favorite Wilco album. But I remember the anticipation for it, and the sense that the band really was going for it in its own way, in a way bands rarely did in 2001-2002, plus the way they forever abandoned the alt-country cul de sac and suddenly became almost cool (which should’ve happened when Being There came out). Heady times.

  6. mockcarr

    Probably not, but there is some value in them sometimes.

  7. He couldn’t clean up for that assignment? Jeez, this confirms…once and for all…my belief that Tweedy is the schleppiest frontman in rock ‘n roll.

  8. Thankfully, he sounds better than he looks.

    He had the mid-90s hipster Look down OK in the Box Full of Letters video.

    But he really looks like he just rolled out of bed all the time these days. Check him out a couple of months ago on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert

  9. Going the way of Merle Haggard?
    A formerly kind of a handsome dude — who progessively looks more “haggard” as time goes and doesn’t to give a damn.

  10. I’m just old school at a certain point. I don’t care if you’re Ozzy Osborne or whomever: put on a suit (or jacket, at the least) for appearances at awards shows, “straight” talk shows, etc. I want Tweedy to respect the dress code of the news crew. (He was funny on that appearance.)

  11. cliff sovinsanity

    The only thing worse than his attire are his die-hard fans exalting the genius of this doofus.

  12. Is there any way his attire for this appearance can factor into the decision regarding the Blockheads-Furious Five deadlock?

  13. misterioso

    KingEd, thanks for this. You write that you are “bugged by the fact that this band I should love is nothing more than a band I like.” I can understand that and would go a step further (or, possibly, not as far) and say that the best and the worst thing I can say about Wilco is that if I were in car with someone listening to Wilco I wouldn’t pray for an accident to occur just to make the music stop. You know what I mean? They don’t bother me in the least, as far as I can tell. They sound like a bunch of other music that I like without being particularly interesting or compelling to me. But I’ve never been able to muster anything like enthusiasm for their non-offensiveness.

  14. I have been a huge fan of Wilco ever since I saw them open for The Jayhawks in 1995. I buy every record the day it comes out. Sky Blue Sky is my favorite record of theirs (the one I do not like is A Ghost is Born) I can not see why SBS is picked on by Wilco fans.

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