Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” (2002) – The Weekend Review

Originally posted 2009-12-27 23:57:53. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

** This is the fourth in a five part series of music reviews, counting down from the #5 to the #1 albums of the decade, 2000-2009. On January 2nd, 2010, the #1 album will be revealed, along with the complete Weekend Review picks for the Top Thirty Albums of the Decade. **

By Chris Moore:

RATING: 5/5 stars

There are those albums that are easily inserted into categories, labeled by genre.  Then, there are those albums which do not, those veritable square pegs hovering above round holes.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot belongs to the latter.

Being that this is one of the most written-about albums of the decade, there have been just as many genre classifications as there have been reviewers.  Regardless of the fact that much of Wilco was formed from ex-Uncle Tupelo members, it is certainly not alt-country, although the trademark rough edges are present in all the right places.  It is not the country-tinged folk rock of Wilco’s debut release, A.M., although Tweedy’s leads sometimes attain that same wonderful raw quality that was so prominent on their first album.  It is not the acoustic rock of Being There, though the acoustic guitars are still quite prominent in the mixes.

Indeed, Summerteeth, their third album, can now be viewed as the proving grounds and a stepping stone to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot — in a sense, as the Today! to their Pet Sounds, the Highway 61 Revisited to their Blonde on Blonde.

It is the clarity of overall vision and focus, as well as the variety of sounds and styles on this record that makes Yankee Hotel Foxtrot one of the best rock albums of the decade.  In many ways, Wilco’s previous recordings were all leading up to this masterpiece, an album that yielded a slew of alternate takes, arrangements, outtakes, and additional mixes.  They poured all they knew about songwriting, performing, and recording into this album, and that is what is most apparent in the tight, finely crafted tunes, every bit as much as it is evident across the sprawling, chaotic landscapes of songs like the opening track.

It has become somewhat difficult to separate the music of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot from the controversy that surrounded it at the time of its release.  Certainly, when they set out to record their fourth studio album, they couldn’t have predicted the poor reception of the record label that would lead to them being dropped from their contract.  They couldn’t have envisioned breaking ground on the now-standard practice of streaming their album in full before its official release.  They couldn’t have known that the story around the album would sell so many copies and overnight transform their band’s image from a fairly obscure alt-country band to the folk/alternative rock trendsetters that they are known as today.  And yet, all the same, these things came to pass, filmed every step of the way by Sam Jones for the documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco.

Moreso than ever, this is an album that now needs to be taken, at least initially, on its own merits.  Nine years after it was recorded and eight years after the controversy and hype have subsided, we are left with the task of locating Yankee Hotel Foxtrot among the greatest albums of the decade, and perhaps of all-time.

Thankfully, it has stood the test of time.

Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" (2002)

The Weekend Review's pick for the #2 album of the decade, 2000-2009, is Wilco's 2002 release, "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot."

Listening to this album is an entertaining, sobering, and all-around interesting experience from the fade in on track one to the fade out on track eleven.  “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” is, of course, the flagship song of the record, establishing both the tone and the mood for the other ten tracks to come.  On the one hand, it is a song with such a simple chord progression and melody that it could be — and has been — easily translated to a solo acoustic performance.  Still, something is lost without, on the other hand, the reluctant bass lines, synthesized sounds, and haphazard yet steady drums.  The sum total of the instruments and vocals introduces a narrator who sounds decidedly detached, inviting us into a realm where we imagine and remember our saddest moments, the conflicts that have defined our romantic lives.

After the final burst of distortion, the second song, “Kamera,” wastes no time in laying out a much more polished folk-rock sound, describing uncertainty as to “which lies I have been hiding, and which echoes belong.”  Tweedy continues, “I’ve counted out days to see how far I’ve driven in the dark with echoes in my heart.”  It is a pretty song; it is a catchy song.  My only reservation here is lyrically — for instance, why spell the title with a “K” rather than a “C”?  As Robert Christgau seemed to point out in his own review of the album, any major concerns about the album’s quality will most likely be focused around the lyrical quality.  While I think he is, as per usual, deaf to the quality of this excellent album, I will admit that I vacillate as to the meaningfulness of some of the lyrics.

Overall, the album speaks to me, and yet, some of the songs may be found shaky on an individual inspection.

But this should be for you to decide as you listen.

“Radio Cure” is next, bringing the pace down to a crawl, expounding on the effects of distance on love.  It is followed by “War on War,” a protest song of sorts that seems to attack simple-mindedness with simplicity.  If nothing else, Tweedy cries the universal truth that, “You have to learn how to die if you wanna be alive…”  One can suppose that this is not necessarily meant as a commentary on physical violence, but moreso in the context of the romantic relationship in shambles that is described throughout the album.

In “Jesus Etc.” and “Ashes of American Flags,” the lyrics rely on allusions to Christianity and the American dream, respectively.  In the former, the singer attempts to reassure a Christ-like lover who is set on leaving, “last cigarettes” being all she can get before she sets about “turning your orbit around.”  The mournful quality of the latter is unsurpassed, particularly as Tweedy repeats the chorus: “All my lies are only wishes; I know I would die if I could come back new.”  Again, there is the Christian — or perhaps Buddhist — metaphor of a death leading to a rebirth.  We can assume that this relationship being referred to is dying or already dead, and the question, of course, remains: what will be reborn in its place?  The song ends with the singer “saluting” the ashes of American flags, “and all the fallen leaves filling up shopping bags.”

Anyone who has gone through a breakup after a meaningful relationship has undoubtedly undergone this phase of the healing process.

The seventh and eighth tracks sidestep a bit, the first — “Heavy Metal Drummer” — taking a nostalgic and upbeat flashback to memories of past summers filled with rock concerts and parties and the second — “I’m the Man Who Loves You” — coming across as a manic return to the present, the singer declaring, “If I could, you know I would just hold your hand and you’d understand: I’m the man who loves you!”

Subsequently, we learn that the singer’s declaration of love has not had the desired effect.  Indeed, “Pot Kettle Black” is an important transition point on the record as Tweedy sings of coming to terms with the realities of the relationship that exists between these two people.  Its abstract lyrics are no attempt to dodge specificity; rather, this is a great case study for how the mind perceives the breakdown of something so dear.

The final two tracks provide another excellent couplet in this eleven line album.  “Poor Places” establishes itself as an anthem for isolation, with the singer ultimately decreeing, “It’s hot in the poor places tonight; I’m not going outside.”  This is not an entirely unexpected turn of events.  After all, the album has covered a lot of melancholy ground, including what can arguably be construed as failed attempts at jump-starting a broken relationship.

When the final track arrives, it is somewhat of an enigma.  “Reservations” is one of the simplest, saddest, and most sincere love songs in the Wilco catalog.  The refrain, “I’ve got reservations about so many things, but not about you,” can be interpreted in several different ways — as a final attempt at reconciliation, as a statement after having reunited with the person (although there is less evidence for this), or perhaps most directly as parting words.  Judging from the ominous silence that follows, complete with sounds that can only be compared to a violent wind, the final interpretation seems the most likely.

From beginning to end, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is one of those rare albums that connects on both mental and emotional levels, calling on the listener to think in order to deconstruct meaning from the songs and utilizing all the right sounds to convey all the right feelings.  This was the album that singlehandedly led me into a breakup, nursed me through the depression that followed, and brought me back to the love of my life. (“What was I thinking when I let go of you?…”)

As the disclaimers read in those lovely commercials about diet pills, my results may not be typical, but my life is better for having experienced this album.  I hope — and have faith — that this album will have even half the effect on you that it did on me.

“The Jolly Banker” (Wilco / Woody Guthrie Acoustic & Lap Steel Cover)

Originally posted 2009-05-25 23:17:29. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

For Wilco/Woody Guthrie chords & lyrics, CLICK HERE!

By Chris Moore:

This is quite the story for a session.  It seems that, in order to outdo my previous “new release” Laptop Sessions, I needed to call in some outside help…

In the form of one Jim Fusco on his brand-new metallic blue lap steel guitar!

Oh, and if you’re a Wilco fan, then I hope you can appreciate how exciting it was for me to host the first Lap-(steel)-top Session.  Throughout their catalog, they have incorporated country tinges with instruments such as this.  Most recently, even as they continue to play around with more experimental forms, Nels Cline plays beautifully on the lap steel in several of their concert set list mainstays, from the older deep track “It’s Just That Simple” to more recent material off of Sky Blue Sky, their 2007 album.

This track, “The Jolly Banker,” was written by Woody Guthrie and originally recorded on March 22, 1940 (as reported in the Library of Congress records for these sessions with folk music expert Alan Lomax).  Nearly seventy years later, Wilco has recorded their own version of this song — which is eerily relevant as of its release on April 30th, 2009 — and released it as a free download online.  Technically, they suggest/request that you donate at least $2 to the Woody Guthrie Foundation — this is quite funny, as one of the three options for downloading states “I am/was a banker/hedge fund manager/credit default swap trader. I know times are tough, but I’m just fine thank you. (Suggested minimum donation $100.00).”

Tonight, I jokingly challenged Jim to not only play this song as his debut performance on his new guitar, but to actually record a Laptop Session on the spot.  He must have taken me seriously or at least had the urge to give the Rogue brand lap steel an official test run, because he didn’t skip a beat when we set up downstairs.  As you’ll hear — and I hope you’ll agree — this is a great, loyal rendition of Wilco’s cover version, right down to the tapping opening count and the aforementioned lap steel.  I was initially thinking that this would be just another session with me recording just another version of a simple song.  Instead, I am proud to say that this is one of my favorite sessions I’ve recorded in a long time.

Unfortunately, although the actual playing of the song with Jim was very fun and relaxed, the events around the recording were frustrating.  As I’m sure Jim will explain in “tomorrow’s” post (don’t forget that I forgot to remember to record on “Memorial” day… there’s some irony for you), he just got his new HD video camera in the mail.  We tried to record the session with the camera — and the video quality was amazing — but the audio quality was terrible.  Jim finally gave up for the night, but I’m sure he’ll come up with some plan to augment and/or jury rig the setup before next week’s Jim Fusco Tuesday.

Maybe then I’ll bug him to record a saxophone solo for a Bruce Springsteen cover…  (Kidding!)  :-)

On a side note, today started off sadly, as I awoke to find the news of former Wilco multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett’s death on my iPhone AP News app.  While I haven’t followed his work outside of Wilco, I was sad to hear this, especially as I read a quote from Bennett from a couple weeks ago about how excited he was for his new album and the future in general.  It all came in a burst for me, as I also just learned yesterday of the lawsuit Bennett had filed against Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy calling for $50,001.00 in back royalties he felt he was owed, citing the YHF documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart as a film for which he did not sign a proper release form.

Some say Bennett was being unreasonable.  Others say he was instrumental (no pun intended… okay, maybe a little) in Wilco’s mainstream breakthrough and that he deserved additional money.  (Apparently he couldn’t even afford a hip replacement that he badly needed.)

Regardless of which side you take, the bottom line is that he has passed away, and at least for the moment, no one is exactly sure what happened.

I also learned today that our oldies/rock acquaintance, Tony Persia, also passed away recently.  I was saddened to learn about this loss, as he has really set the tone at the annual Carbutti Christmas parties that both Jim and I attend.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with him, he was probably best known as the piano player for the classic Danny & the Juniors single “At the Hop.”  He was an incredibly kind, charming man who met many great music stars in his life and played lots and lots of music — I know I speak for Jim, Mike, and I when I say he will be sorely missed, particularly this December…

On a happy note, I just downloaded the Wilco iPhone app, and it’s great fun.  You can access all the latest band news, photos, and listen in full(!) to every song from their official catalog, including both Mermaid Avenue releases and their live Kicking Television concert album.  If only my other favorite bands would jump on the iPhone application train…  (cough, nudge – “Dylan, Beach Boys, Barenaked Ladies, Moody Blues, Pearl Jam” – cough, nudge)

Without further ado, I will leave you to watch this collaborative session.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed recording it…

See you next session!

“Joe DiMaggio Done It Again” (Woody Guthrie, Billy Bragg, Wilco Cover) – OPENING DAY DOUBLE HEADER 2 of 2

For Woody Guthrie, Billy Bragg, & Wilco chords and lyrics, CLICK HERE!

By Chris Moore:

As promised, I’m up to the plate for the second time this evening, as I sonically celebrate New York Mets baseball opening day 2009!

For my next trick, I picked my familiar acoustic guitar up and learned a song from Mermaid Avenue, Volume II.  This album is comprised of songs whose lyrics were composed by Woody Guthrie, predominantly in the 1940s.  Then, in the mid to late 1990s, Billy Bragg and the boys of Wilco (Jeff Tweedy, John Stirratt, Jay Bennett, and Ken Coomer) teamed up to write music to the words.  The result was Mermaid Avenue.  The first album is, in my opinion, a masterpiece.  In both individual tracks and the sequence of songs as a whole, the first album is amazing.  There’s something about the production quality and the combination of vocals — alternating between Bragg’s deep clarity and Tweedy’s roughness — and instrumentation is masterful.

The second collaboration is essentially a compilation of tracks left off the first release.  As Bragg and Wilco had had a falling out, I can’t imagine that there was much in the way of actual collaboration on the second album.  This is evident, and it perhaps accounts for why I have never really gotten into the second album as much as the first.  Still, there are some standout tracks, such as “Airline to Heaven” and “Someday Some Morning Sometime.”

Admittedly, “Joe DiMaggio Done It Again” is not a song I would, under normal circumstances, choose to record for a Laptop Session.  (And it’s a bit of an anomaly, as the music is written by Bragg, yet Tweedy sings it — a good decision, in my personal opinion!)  That being said, I couldn’t think of a more perfect track for today.  Although Joe DiMaggio was a player for the Yankees (and I’m a Mets fan!), I think DiMaggio belongs to an era of baseball history that is timeless.  There are certain players — Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Ty Cobb, and others — that fans of all teams can appreciate.

It doesn’t hurt that the Mets won 2-1 over Cincinnati, led by the strong starting pitching of Johan Santana and a home run by Daniel Murphy to name a couple.  Even though I wasn’t home to watch the game, I was able to watch via live phone feed — um, I mean the internet connection to the Mets homepage on my iPhone.  As Mike texted today, “We’re back to iPhone scoreboard watching!”

As a final note, today is special for another reason…

It’s fellow Laptop Sessions contributor Mike Fusco’s birthday!  Here’s to the big 2-3, Fusc!  His birthday seems to come at the best time of the year for him — just as the weather is starting to turn warmer (not that you could tell from today’s weather!).  For those of you who don’t know, one of Mike’s favorite pastimes is going to the beach.  I was there this weekend, and let me tell you… it’s just about time!

Well, that’s about enough for one post.  I mean, two posts.  :-)  Have a great week and don’t forget to stop back regularly this week for more all-new cover song music videos and posts; the second installment of my “Together Through Life” article is coming this weekend…

See you next session!