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Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

The recent talk of classic rock has made me consider the possibility of modern classics. What recent albums have been unanimously praised upon release, and will likely be remembered for decades to come? I’ll consider turning this into a series of reviews at some point, but first I’ll talk about Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, certainly one of the most written-about albums in recent memory, and for good reason.

The two things nearly every review of this album mentions are the uniquely experimental production values, and the fight to release the record. I remember reading of both around the time of the record’s release, but I don’t remember actually hearing much about the quality of the music itself, only that Wilco had a struck a blow for artist’s rights, and for that reason alone was worth praise. So I didn’t even bother to hear the record for a while, until I noticed that the documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, which chronicles the making the of the album, was coming to the Carolina Theater in Chapel Hill, right across the street from UNC campus. Arriving at the theater, I found myself surrounded by area hipsters and by middle-aged country men who looked as if they’d probably worshipped at the altar of Tweedy long ago in his Uncle Tupelo days.

My first impression of the film was that it wasn’t terribly well-made, and that the unquestioned highlight of the film was Wilco’s music. I immediately went out and bought a copy of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and popped it in with high expectations.

My feelings were very mixed at first. I found the production to be fascinating, and the songwriting to be relatively fine, but I was let down by the fact that several songs from the film weren’t actually on this album, or were heavily reworked. On a second viewing of the film last year, I noted a surprising number of songs from Being There and Summerteeth were showcased, which strikes me as a bit odd, especially the gratuitous studio performance of I’m Always In Love, one of the highlights of the film.

Despite that initial disappointment, I grew quite fond of the songs that did find their way onto this album, and I was even more enthralled with the maverick production, full of noisy static and samples of numbers stations that I felt complemented the songwriting perfectly. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot quickly became one of my favorite albums, and at one point I think I’d memorized how to play the entire album on guitar, which was actually surprisingly simple. So I began to seek out other Wilco albums. And that’s when doubts began to grow.

I stayed with YHF for almost a year and a half, exploring all its little subtleties and quirks, before going on a Wilco spree and purchasing their new album A Ghost is Born, the YHF-predecessor Summerteeth, and the Summerteeth-predecessor Being There, all in the space of two or three months. I was riding high on Wilco, and they quickly became one of my all-time favorite bands, as I soaked in the glorious pop of Summerteeth and the brooding majesty of A Ghost is Born. What took me awhile to realize was that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was suddenly lost somewhere in the shuffle, and I had completely forgotten about its songs. When I did finally revisit YHF, almost a year later, it sounded…boring, and dull.

The noisy production was no longer novel to me, and so I began to explore the quality of the songs themselves, and that’s where I found the critical flaw in Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Over the past year, I had found Summerteeth to be an absolute revelation, full of tight and concise pop songs ranging across the entire spectrum of tempos and moods. On the other hand, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was stuck in a stylistic rut with nowhere to go, and after stripping away the production, I found myself left with some decent, but not brilliant songs. Many songs seemed to be just barely written, with mountains of lush production filling them out and propping them up. And in other cases, the songwriting is fine, but the recorded performances sound tame and almost smothered, as if Wilco were trapped inside the walls of production they’d created. Juxtaposing YHF with Summerteeth especially brings out the tired sound and weak songwriting of the former, while the latter is a joyous ride all the way through.

And that’s where my opinion stands today. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot pales in comparison to the rest of the Wilco discography, but the fact that YHF still ranks among the best albums of recent years is a testament to the consistent quality of Wilco’s output. It’s just that the songwriting is relatively weak in my opinion, and isn’t songwriting the basis of…songs? No amount of production or studio trickery can cover up poor songwriting; the studio has become too much a of a crutch for bands, and that’s a cardinal sin in modern rock music. I’ll give Yankee Hotel Foxtrot a 9.2/12.

  1. I Am Trying to Break Your Heart – Probably my favorite track. Musically it’s one of the most simple that Wilco has ever penned, just the same three chords and the same melody repeated over the entire 7-minute span, but the catchy and heartfelt melody and surrealist imagery is enough to carry it forward. The amazing production takes a backseat to the simple tune and complements it perfectly. This doesn’t feel like a long song at all, the pacing is absolutely perfect, a testament to the production on this song. The chaotic ending is a little strange, but it’s not too jarring. Would’ve been a nice song to end on a pretty note, I imagine.
  2. Kamera – Makes a lot of sense coming after I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, but doesn’t stand up too well on its own, as the production is a little stifling and seems to smother the performance. Tweedy and co. sound completely bored on this track, with only the production adding any sort of life. Wilco seems to know this too, as there’s some sort of fill in-between almost every single line. At least the production’s not too over-the-top, this easily could’ve been turned into a disaster of a track.
  3. Radio Cure – Was my favorite track on 1st and 2nd listen, but it’s painfully obvious now that this song owes everything to the production; it’s a very weak musical idea propped up by lush production. The song takes too long to reach the chorus, which is abruptly cut off, and so more trudging through the awkward verses continues. Only the apple-picking line and the final chorus can save this song somewhat.
  4. War on War – I really love the opening, with the doubled acoustic guitar coming in on the left channel. The blasts of noise are relatively appropriate here, I can tell the song would become entirely too monotonous without them. This is another very simple tune, with most of the song sitting on just one chord. The piano melody is absolutely essential though. A relatively fun tune, one of my favorites for no real reason. Another bizarrely chaotic ending, again I wonder if a prettier ending would suit things better.
  5. Jesus, etc. – Everybody seems to love this song, and it is quite a beautiful tune. I’m a bit embarassed to admit, however, that I’ve tried it out on a solo acoustic guitar, at a much slower tempo, and things sounds much better then. It’s a very sensitive song, and I feel that the brisk pace makes it a little too cheeky and rushed. If everybody else likes it just the way it is though, I won’t level too much criticism on it.
  6. Ashes of American Flags – I’ve never been a fan of this song. It simply plods along with no real musical movement, and it’s one of the few tracks in which I feel that the production really goes too far and interferes too much. Like Radio Cure, this feels like another weak idea propped up by production, though it’s done far less successfully here. I cringe every time I here the fake woodwinds on the return to the chorus. What’s with all these chaotic endings and transitions? At least they’re here, and not in the middle of songs. This transition is the location of the infamous Tweedy vs. Bennett fight that is shown in the documentary.
  7. Heavy Metal Drummer – I was a huge fan of this on the first few listens, it’s a very catchy and concise song. However, like in Kamera, this sounds like another very bored performance that’s covered up by all the ecstatic production. They did this kind of upbeat pop far better on Summerteeth.
  8. I’m the Man Who Loves You – Has always been my least favorite song on this album. The noisy guitar solos are unbelievably grating and distracting. And again, there’s the brass on the final chorus, especially the overmixed low brass, which is unbelievably cheesy, and very unwilcolike. For such a mellow and low-key album, you have to rely on tracks like this and Heavy Metal Drummer to pick up the pace and keep the record from bogging down, but this track just ends up being incredibly jarring. It’s another tune that could’ve sounded better slowed down on just an acoustic guitar.
  9. Pot Kettle Black – Very underrated in my opinion. I love the opening, with the feedback-laden guitar rising in and out of focus. The unusual chord in the verses sounds great as well, with the additional production elements adding nicely to the second verse. The chorus is one of the few truly uplifting and joyous moments on this album for me. It’s a well-penned song, and the production only enhances its qualities, making this the quintessential YHF track for me.
  10. Poor Places – Arguably the most unique melody on the album, too bad the production is way too over-the-top here. Tweedy has no chords behind his voice on the first two verses, providing no sort of musical context, and the piano on the third verse adds very little. The song then sadly collapses into the aimless coda. The “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” numbers station sample is incredibly distracting, especially when laid over Tweedy’s vocals, before everything falls into further chaos. Possibly one of the worst closings to a song I’ve ever heard. Tweedy’s solo performance in the documentary was fantastic, and I was really looking forward to hearing this on record, but it turned out to be one of my greatest disappointments.
  11. Reservations – A really beautiful song, but there’s too much empty space, and it stretches on for far too long. Not a bad closing, but it’s not particularly memorable either.

I downloaded the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot demos that have been floating around the internet, and they’re pretty quality. I would’ve loved to see well-written tracks like Magazine Called Sunset or Not For The Season take the place of dredge like Ashes Of American Flags. Seek out the demos if you like this album at all.

Seek out these links as well: