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 Top Five Rock Artists of the Decade (2000s): NUMBER THREE is Jack White

Originally posted 2010-04-13 14:34:59. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

This is the third in a five part series dedicated to the top five rock artists of the decade, 2000-2009.  The criteria used to determine this list were: (1) Quality of Music, (2) Quantity of Released Material, (3) Diversity of Media, and (4) Roles of Artists/Band Members.  Look for new posts coming soon!

By Chris Moore:

Easily one of the busiest figures in contemporary rock music, Jack White has made it his business to write, record, perform, and produce music every chance he gets.  There is something breathtaking about the apparent ease with which he has transcended genre lines and brought the influences back to his own music.  It is equally impressive to consider how many directions he has been pulled in during this decade, and yet how strong his contributions have been to each of his numerous ventures.

I, for one, wasn’t sure what to make of this straggly-haired ax-grinder when I first heard of him in the wake of the White Stripes’ breakthrough effort Elephant in 2003.  I’ll never forget tuning in (on the advice of a friend) to Late Night with Conan O’Brien during their week-long tenure promoting this aforementioned album.  “Seven Nation Army” may have been overplayed for some, but I loved its gritty, riffy simplicity, punctuated by White’s lead vocals and Meg White’s wonderfully boneheaded drumming.

With each new White Stripes album I’ve heard, I’ve realized more and more the degree to which Jack and Meg — particularly Jack — are experts at finding their comfort zones, then burning them down.  In the Raconteurs, he contributes a very big, very characteristic guitar sound, somehow crafting a new landscape without plagiarizing his White Stripes sound.  And the Dead Weather, his second side project, is something else all together, a sound that White pulls together with his drumming rather than his guitar work.

Taking these three bands into consideration, then throwing in his solo work and other one-off collaborations for good measure, there is simply no way to avoid giving Jack White a respectful — if not awe-filled — nod for his exemplary contemporary rock music created this decade.

BLACK & WHITE & RED ALL OVER

Any music promoter will tell you that it’s not simply the sound of a band that is important, but also their image and general appearance.  Jack and Meg White have excelled with this other half of the equation, always dressing in red, white, and black, as well as seeing to it that their album artwork follows suit.  Their music may draw comparisons to acts of the past like Led Zeppelin, but this is no retro act.  In their continually developing sound, and equally in the way they dress and act, the White Stripes are one of the most interesting bands of the decade.

How to go about describing such a band in a few paragraphs?

I’ll start with words like quirky, bold, frenetic, complex, basic, and that’s just to begin with.  Since 2000’s De Stijl, the White Stripes have released four more albums:  2001’s very promising White Blood Cells, their major label debut Elephant in 2001 (a.k.a. their personal catapult into the pop culture lexicon), 2005’s piano-driven masterpiece Get Behind Me Satan, and most recently, a return to distortion drenched guitar in the riff-laden reveries of 2007’s Icky Thump.  By the time they released their first live CD, Under Great White Northern Lights (2010), the White Stripes had developed quite a catalog to draw from.

That they are able to achieve their sound with just two band members is intriguing.  Granted, Meg White suffered a breakdown that resulted in the cancellation of some tour dates in 2007, but there have been confirmed reports since last year that they are already at work on their seventh album.

A SIDE PROJECT, A SIDE PROJECT FROM THE SIDE PROJECT, AND MORE!

Jack White’s work in the White Stripes is substantial enough to be considered notable, but it is his wide variety of ventures outside the scope of his primary band that cinch his position at the upper part of the contemporary rock music ladder.  His five contributions to the Cold Mountain soundtrack in 2003 suggested that he had more to give than could be satisfied in one band alone.  He has since gone on to produce and play on a laundry list of other albums, including Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose.  More recently, he wrote and recorded an outstanding duet with Alicia Keys for the James Bond film Another Way to Die, the first duet in the Bond series.

With all the writing, performing, and recording White has done since the early nineties, it is interesting to note that his first official “solo” work was released in 2009 — the single “Fly Farm Blues.”

In addition to these one-off efforts, White has joined not one but two side projects.  The first, the Raconteurs, formed in 2005 along with power pop rocker Brendan Benson (sharing guitar duty), bassist Jack Lawrence, and drummer Patrick Keeler.  After their 2006 debut Broken Boy Soldiers, they followed up quickly with the phenomenal Consolers of the Lonely in 2008.  The latter is easily one of the best rock music albums of the decade, and it is an outrage that I passed over it for my Top 50 Albums of the 2000s list.  This is the Jack White music that I am perhaps most drawn to: tight, fully-produced, riff-driven songs with an abundance of crunchy guitars, a rockin’ rhythm section, and catchy leads.

As if that weren’t enough to keep him busy, White co-founded the Dead Weather in 2009 with the Kills’ lead singer Alison Mosshart, guitarist Dean Fertita, and Raconteurs bassist Jack Lawrence.  This is an altogether different venture that features a grungier tone than the Raconteurs or even the White Stripes.  The songs are a bit longer, and could be described as a set of almost-jams.  After I heard their interpretations of Bob Dylan’s “New Pony,” a so-so deep track from 1978’s Street Legal, I was hooked.

In summary, this decade has seen Jack White bring the White Stripes to worldwide rock music fame, form not one but two side groups, release his first single as a solo artist, and contribute to a myriad of other artists’ albums and soundtracks.  At the time of this writing (early 2010), there is a May 11th release date set for the follow-up Dead Weather album, confirmations from White that the White Stripes will be releasing an album in the near future, and whispers of an all-out solo record from the man himself.

Hands down, Jack White is my pick for the number three rock music artist of the 2000s for all the right reasons: the sheer quantity of music produced, his development of a signature guitar sound, and his collaborations with other artists (Dylan, Beck, and more in addition to those mentioned above).  It’s a no-brainer, my friends.

The Top Five Rock Artists of the Decade (2000s): NUMBER FIVE is Green Day

Originally posted 2010-02-03 19:12:29. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

This is the first in a five part series dedicated to the top five rock artists of the decade, 2000-2009.  The criteria used to determine this list were: (1) Quality of Music, (2) Quantity of Released Material, (3) Diversity of Media, and (4) Roles of Artists/Band Members.  Look for new posts coming soon!

By Chris Moore:

The fifth entry on this list, Green Day is a strong candidate for top band of the decade, if only for their impressive return to the forefront of popular punk/rock music over the past ten years.  Even in their heyday, Green Day did not acheive the recognition that they have in the past six years. 

Who could have predicted that a trio of ostensible knuckleheads like Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt, and Tre Cool would be headlining the concept album revival in the mid-2000’s, complete with a rock opera/musical adaptation set to the tunes of American Idiot?

[Is that the sound of crickets?]

PAST SUCCESS

Without argument, Green Day was one of the most successful bands of the nineties rock revival, carving out their reputation by way of the punk rock genre.  It was a bit of an exaggeration to have titled their best-of disc International Superhits!, but their music did appear on many different charts in many different nations over their first decade as a band. 

And, for better or for worse, if you turned on a radio in the nineties and listened long enough, you couldn’t avoid hearing songs like “When I Come Around” or especially “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life).”  The latter was the song that ER character Jeanie Boulet chose to sing at the funeral of a friend. 

When one of the most popular dramas of the decade chooses your song at the peak of their own popularity, that’s saying something…

WARNING AND A LOW POINT

Which brings us to THIS decade.  I would be hard-pressed to find another group from the nineties in their genre that have had such staying power as Green Day.  Bad Religion?  Not so much.  Chumbawamba?  A one hit wonder.  The Offspring and Rancid?  Well, they’re still around, but they certainly haven’t acheived the mainstream success that Green Day has. 

That is, if you discount Warning, their first studio album of the decade.

Any way you look at it, Warning is a low point in their career, failing to ascend the charts, make sales, and receive positive reviews in the characteristic manner that their previous albums had.  Two years after Warning, things weren’t looking any better with them supposedly “co-headlining” a concert tour with Blink 182, but actually opening each night. 

This all amounted to a great deal of evidence that Green Day had peaked and this was their descent into obscurity.

A SETBACK BECOMES A COMEBACK

As they returned to the studio to work on their next album, Cigarettes & Valentines, things weren’t looking any brighter.  Near the end of their sessions (according to Armstrong), the master tapes were stolen.  There weren’t even rough mixes remaining.

So, what does this band decide to do in a moment of crisis?

Start from scratch.

That’s right: Green Day decided to start from scratch.  Although a song or two from the aforementioned doomed album would make its way into live sets, the band started over, taking this as an opportunity to approach their new album from a different angle.  So, they broke out their guitars and began writing, working together in new and better ways than they had before. 

The result?  Only their most critically acclaimed, highest-selling album to date, American Idiot.

AMERICAN IDIOT & 21ST CENTURY BREAKDOWN: A CONCEPT ALBUM REVIVAL

Green Day’s mentality following the loss of their master tapes brings to mind Conan O’Brien’s final lines from his closing statement last month on The Tonight Show: “Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.”

You think?

I’ll just come out and say it: I’ve never been a big fan of American Idiot.  I think I’ve missed something in the translation of the lyrics, and I’ve been told that the at-times-boneheaded lyrics that I am turned off by are, in fact, purposefully constructed in order to make a statement about the average American.  Perhaps.  What makes me believe this is true, and what makes me nod my head in American Idiot‘s direction even if it won’t appear on my iPod any time soon, is that the album is so carefully constructed.  One flip through the CD booklet will reveal an overarching concept, artwork, and other notes that were cleverly compiled and arranged to create a whole that is stronger than the parts.  I won’t go comparing it to the first seven records of the Moody Blues — the industry standard for excellent concept albums — but I will say I have great respect for the band’s intentions.

Their follow-up album?  21st Century Breakdown is an even more expansive concept album that tackles the question: What will we do when our national slogan can no longer be “Change We Can Believe In,” and must instead be (hopefully) “Change That Has Already Taken Place and A Society That We Are Happy With”?  This is an interesting question indeed, particularly for those of my generation who defined their coming of age by being in opposition to all that George W. Bush’s presidency represented.  As we “graduate” into a different, potentially better society in 2012, what will we do to avoid the pitfalls of the previous presidency and its perspectives? 

A mere year into Barack Obama’s term in office, we have already begun tackling the question: How long is too long to wait for that change we believed in?  Some are patient, some are less so, but 21st Century Breakdown makes an interesting statement on these essential questions, particularly on an emotional/intuitive level.

SIDE PROJECTS AND ADAPTATIONS

Amidst all this standard studio album work, Green Day has also been able to thrive in a number of different ventures outside of traditional band output.  They have released a Billboard Top Ten live album, a platinum-status greatest hits compilation, a B-sides/rarities collection that broke the Billboard Top Thirty, and worked their way into the retro market by preparing a Green Day vinyl box set.

Outside of the band, Armstrong, Dirnt, and Cool have formed such side projects as The Network and the Foxboro Hot Tubs, both successful to different degrees and certainly indicative of a band hungry to record, produce, and play new music in a prolific manner. 

Then there is the rock opera/musical based on the story told through American Idiot, certainly a unique addition to any band’s list of tributes.

And so, at decade’s end, Green Day has reasserted themselves in what can only be described as an impressive manner.  It took me until 21st Century Breakdown to really appreciate their work, and I can only hope that the coming decade will be every bit as successful in terms of not only popularity but also quality!

The Top Five Rock Artists of the Decade (2000s): NUMBER FOUR is Jack Johnson

Originally posted 2010-02-18 13:56:50. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

This is the second in a five part series dedicated to the top five rock artists of the decade, 2000-2009.  The criteria used to determine this list were: (1) Quality of Music, (2) Quantity of Released Material, (3) Diversity of Media, and (4) Roles of Artists/Band Members.  Look for new posts coming soon!

By Chris Moore:

For an artist whose entire recorded career is contained within this one decade, Jack Johnson has compiled an expansive and impressive catalog.  He has matured quickly, enough to form his own record label and to gain the respect of some of the biggest names in rock music.

As I type this, I’m listening to the live En Concert version of “Constellations,” a duet with Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder, performed as comfortably as if they were buddies jamming in their parents’ basement.

Most notable of all is the manner in which Jack Johnson has achieved success — namely, by recording chart-topping albums in an age when singles are all the rage and illegal downloading has cut many artists’ sales.  In a mere nine years, Johnson’s repertoire extends across four studio albums, a soundtrack, three concert DVDs, and a live CD.

Without a doubt, Jack Johnson is one of the top rock artists of the decade.

AN ALBUM GUY, AN ACOUSTIC GUY…

Just to recap:  singles ruling the music kingdom, illegal downloading killing sales, music stores closing their doors.

Well, you wouldn’t know it by the way Jack Johnson has built his career.  Thus far, it’s gone down something like this…

2001: Brushfire Fairytales, a mix between conventional (read: acoustic) and catchy/quirky, a debut album that manages to crack the top forty in the U.S., rising all the way to number 34 despite the fact that the only single released faltered on the fall line, forty slots lower.  Songs like “Inaudible Melodies,” “Flake,” and “Losing Hope” were already outstanding, while others shared the promise of thematic (“The News”) and lyrical (“Posters” – “Here comes another one, just like the other one”) material to come.

2003: On and On, a darker, more lyrically interesting album, a follow-up that skyrockets to number three in the U.S. and manages multi-platinum sales globally.   You wouldn’t know it from the U.S. singles charts, but there are some tremendous songs here — “Taylor,” “The Horizon Has Been Defeated,” “Gone,” “Holes to Heaven” — the list goes on…

2005: In Between Dreams, a veritable “best of” collection, an instantly classic album with a crystal clear sound and a beautiful sense of atmosphere, a true masterpiece.  It hit number two in America, and in a rare case of the UK being behind, they finally caught wind of Johnson as he topped the charts there.  It’s all here — the carefree, relaxing (“Banana Pancakes,” “Better Together”), the serious, politically-charged (“Crying Shame,” “Good People”), the good love songs (“Do You Remember?) and the jilted love songs (“Sitting, Waiting, Wishing”).

2008: Sleep Through the Static, billed as “Jack Johnson gone electric,” an even calmer, lower-key record than he had ever produced before, one that takes some time to grow into.  This is a case of each individual song being great — played in order, the “chill” factor is too much at times.  Not the strongest note to end the decade on, but it leaves us with some wonderful tracks like “All At Once,” “If I Had Eyes,” “Go On,” and “They Do, They Don’t.”

JAPAN, THE GREEK, AND EN CONCERT

His career as a professional athlete — surfer — may have been brief, but Johnson hasn’t stopped moving in this career, either.

And there are the films to prove it.

Live in Japan is more than just a concert DVD; it is a documentary of the On and On tour.  Then, as if that wasn’t enough, comes A Weekend at the Greek, an even more interesting, visually stimulating documentary of two concert dates on the In Between Dreams tour.  I’ve seen a good number of rock documentaries and live DVDs over the years, and believe me when I say that the latter (The Greek) is perhaps the best I’ve seen.

En Concert, released last year, was the final Jack Johnson release of the decade, and his first CD/DVD combo.  Excellent, colorful booklet?  Check.  Great setlist?  Double check.  Some great guest duets?  Triple check (J Radio, Paula Fuga, and Vedder).

In any rock artist’s career, the ratio between studio albums and live albums must be carefully balanced.  From the outside, three live CDs and/or DVDs may seem excessive when held up against four studio recordings, but Jack Johnson somehow managed it.  He was smart to release Japan as a bonus disc with The Greek, and he held off on a companion CD until En Concert.  This was a rare circumstance of the overlap between smart marketing and an affordable, fan-friendly strategy.

WITH MY OWN TWO HANDS — COLLABORATIONS AND OTHER VENTURES

If this was all Johnson produced this decade, it would be more than enough.  However, he wasn’t content to stick to these traditional products alone.  He took on the task of recording the Sing-A-Longs and Lullabies for the film Curious George soundtrack, involving others like G. Love, Matt Costa, and Ben Harper.  This was not only a strong release, but also featured some of the strongest tracks of his career — “Upside Down” (his highest charting single at #38), “Broken,” “Wrong Turn” — as well as some of the silliest, albeit catchiest — “The Sharing Song” and “People Watching.”

Meanwhile, he continued his interest and involvement in independent films (he did graduate as a film major, after all!), contributed to numerous high profile tribute releases (“Mama, You Been on My Mind” for I’m Not There, “Imagine” for Instant Karma, “Someday at Christmas” for This Warm December), and nurtured the careers of the several artists on his Brushfire Records label.

My respect for Jack Johnson is multiplied when I consider how he accomplished all these things on his own in less than ten years.  He is a unique voice and sound in modern rock music, as well as a prolific artist, and as such, I was not surprised to hear that, a mere month into the new decade, he has already returned to the studio to work on his fifth album, due out in June 2010.

Even with my disappointment after Sleep Through the Static, I can already feel my anticipation building!