Wednesday, January 24, 2007

All time top ten - #3 - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

You must have heard the story by now. In early 2001, Wilco offered their new record, 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot', to execs at Reprise Records (a subsidiary of Warner Music), ready for release. The suits didn't hear cash registers ringing, and turned it down, telling the band they wanted more country and less alt. country. Wilco refused to change a thing and wound up buying out the contract and posting the music on their website. And then everything exploded. 5 star reviews came out of the woodwork, tens of thousands took up the music and the then-burgeoning blogsphere ran riot. Reprise wanted back in, but Wilco signed to Nonesuch records (ironically enough another Warner subsidiary)for twice as much as they bought their old contract out for, making the Reprise suits appear biblically short-sighted.
Against a backdrop such as this, it's easy to see why people can get caught up in the rapturous claims of brilliance that now surround this record. Fortunately enough, the record itself is just that.
It's apparent from the opening, psychadelic drone of 'I am Trying to Break Your Heart', complete with bursts of of-kilter drumming, snatches of guitar and alarm clocks, that this is no ordinary pop record. When the pop is there, it's nothing short of quintessential, 'Heavy Metal Drummer', 'Kamera' 'I Am the Man Who Loves You' and 'War on War' equal parts nostalgia and futurism, many times closing by devolving into chaotic hum and buzz, and in the case of the amazing 'Poor Places', morphing into the dischordant, disembodied voice of a Mossad spy recording droning the titular 'Yankee....Hotel...Foxtrot...' again and again.
But it is the record's quieter, more reflective moments that truly give it it's classic status. In 'Jesus, etc.' the album finds ts heartbeat, a poignant, lovely and utterly desperate plea for simpler and happier times. 'Radio Cure' and 'Ashes of American Flags' in the hands of lesser beings would rapidly have been viewed as filler; here, they're raw emotion, singer Jeff Tweedy intoning 'All my lies are only wishes/I know I would die if I could come back new....I would like to salute/The ashes of American flags/and all the falling leaves/Filling up shopping bags'. And it's Tweedy's lyrics that are the unsung (pun utterly intended) champions of YHF. If it's playing the noun-as-verb game on 'I Am Trying to Break Your Heart', croaking 'I am an American aquarium drinker/I assassin down the avenue'. Such jive-talking lyricism is certainly not out of place on YHF. But it is the yearning, pain, regret and, ultimately, hope that set this record apart; 'Distance has a way/of making love/understandable' from 'Radio Cure' speaks this in dolby surround.
The album closer, 'Reservations' contains the line 'I've got reservations about so many things, but not about you'. This encapsulates the longing, love, pain and drink that YHF is soaked in, and what makes it one of the truly great records.

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