It is frustrating to see critics grasping at ways to describe bands with broad terms that, ultimately, fail to describe how a group really sounds. I'm often reminded of the opening scene of Robert Altman
's The Player
when reading "pitches" of new records, and find myself hard pressed to find out why I should care about any number of new albums that might be described as Desmond Dekker
meets The Strokes
, or whatnot. So, yes, it is downright invigorating to see bands once stuffed into pidgeonholes fucking the whole system of genre cantorization (from the Cantor Ternary Set
, "wheels within wheels", use it three times and it's yours) in the eye every once and again.
The most vile subgenre, by far, must be "alt-country
". I couldn't imagine a worse word to market new music. Most hip radio listeners around the time this term was becoming popular wouldn't be caught dead listening to what was marketable country at the time, but still, a minor explosion took off in Illinois
, of all places. Uncle Tupelo
begat Son Volt
and, in their wake, people may have started paying attention to Giant Sand
, 16 Horsepower
, Red Red Meat
, and Califone
, but the whole lot was cursed with the stigma of a bad title.
But the luckiest of the lot always was Wilco
. A moderately successful debut lent them a staggering amount of credibility, which was subsequently backed up by the well received Summer Teeth
, not to mention the Mermaid Avenue
sessions with Billy Bragg
. Still, though, that albatross "alt-country" hung around them, damning them and all attached to the name. Thankfully, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
is now sufficient proof that anyone still willing to attach vague generalizations based on a single facet of influence or instrumentation is obviously incapable of appreciating music, and we can soon single them out and send them away with all the phone sanitizers
That being said, I need to take a flashback to around 1997 and 1999. These were slightly important years for modern pop because of two landmark albums: Radiohead
's OK Computer
wasn't as big a radio favorite as OK Computer
, but both albums were remarkably bullshit free for British festival pop at the time. I want you to think of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
in terms of this. This is a band reaching an apex, becoming greater than itself.
So, yes yes, it's obvious that I like the record. That's not at all a reason why you should rush out and buy it. I don't know what your particular take on Wilco
is, but I remember my opinion of Blur
. This is something entirely different from what Wilco
has done in the past; and yet, remarkably, there is a familiar sense to the album, even in the scope of its diversity. The album carries the remarkable effect of being catchy enough to enjoy on first listen while containing enough interesting effects and arrangements to warrant and, possibly, neccessitate repeated experiences. The opener, the droning, noisy and beautifully bitter I Am Trying To Break Your Heart
plods along like the night after a breakup, full of funhouse loathing, plucked piano strings, drunken percussion, scattered lyrics, callous regards. This, of course, all leads well into the poppy and driving Kamera
, the first hint that secretly, this is a top down album, something for bright summer months ahead. This is practically naive beach music, catchy, enjoyable, a little innocent. Right off the back of that, the melancholic optimism of Radio Cure
beats in, with the line "Cheer up, honey, I hope you can: there is something wrong with me," ached out, like a secret gone wrong. Yes, this is summer, but it's not always sunny.
I could take you on a play-by-play, but you'll want to be surprised by this album. War on War
trumps the cynical optimism of Radio Cure
with a jangly optimistic cynicism, not to mention some nice surprises along the way. Jesus, Etc.
brings us into the vein of Gorky's Zygotic Mynci
, a little twangy soul, and a little bit of Life After God
spirituality. Ashes of American Flags
brings a nice little line: "All my lies are always wishes
," bringing a bit of sentimental existential anti-consumerism into the mix.
The song that will sell you on this album is Heavy Metal Drummer
. It is possible that this song may just melt your cold, cynical, bitter heart and prompt you to get some fresh air in the months to come. I don't think Wilco
will teach you how to love again, but this is one incredibly potent pop tune.
I'm The Man Who Loves You
has a nice little jive going, with horn section chasing steel guitar, but what will really knock you flat are the last three songs. Pot Kettle Black
is, perhaps, the finest song on the record, airy, screechy, full of infectious hooks and enough hope to take on the world. It chills wonderfully into Poor Places
, an entrancing and enveloping aural construct that builds and teases, culminating in the cry, "When it's hot in the poor places tonight, I'm not going outside," sung over a wavy recording of a British woman's voice repeating "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot"
until the discord drowns her out and subsequently fades away. Finally, the album caps off with the whistful Reservations
, which drones and hums until it slowly, inevitably becomes extinguished.
This album was almost abandoned early last year when guitarist Jay Bennett
left the band, but Jeff Tweedy
and the remaining members decided to rescue the studio tapes from Warner
for the scant sum of $50,000 and self produced the sucker. Jim O'Rourke
lends his hand to add just the right amount of intriguing lunacy amongst all the tounge-in-cheek croonings, and is probably accountable for the sheer addictive qualities of these tunes. This record came out just in time for the summer, which is truly a perfect time to rise up and garrotte the fuckers who insist that a genre is defined by a single instrument.
- I Am Trying To Break Your Heart
- Radio Cure
- War On War
- Jesus, Etc.
- Ashes of American Flags
- Heavy Metal Drummer
- I'm The Man Who Loves You
- Pot Kettle Black
- Poor Places