Tuesday, July 7, 2015

CD Odyssey Disc 755: Wilco

I’ve torn myself away from Wimbledon to bring you this next review. The sacrifices I make for you, dear reader, the sacrifices I make...

Disc 755 is….Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
Artist: Wilco

Year of Release: 2002

What’s up with the Cover? Skyscrapers? There is not enough going on with this cover for me to like or hate it. The background colour would be fine if you were painting your living room, I suppose.

How I Came To Know It: I really liked “A.M” (reviewed way back at Disc 84) and I read that “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” was their best album, so I bought it next.

How It Stacks Up: I have four Wilco albums, not counting Jeff Tweedy’s many other projects. Of those four albums, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” is third. Sorry, Wilco fans.

Ratings: 3 stars

Highly creative and experimental bands like Wilco can go one of two directions once they have enough money to do what they want. They can explore new sounds while maintaining the pretty compositions that made them great to begin with (think Beck), or they can decide to just do a bunch of weird crap that makes them feel clever (think Radiohead). “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” is a bit of both.

The best example of this is the first song, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” which could have been a heart-wrenching four minute break up song, but is instead a seven minute monstrosity. The melody once the song gets going is quite pretty, but it is buried in strange droning, and ill-placed chimes that sound like someone’s microwave popcorn went off during the recording session. It is a promising song that descends into a droning puddle of self-absorption. Competing piano chords introduced halfway seem designed to balance off against the harmony of the hook but succeed only in making the whole thing disjointed. This song is the musical equivalent of taking months to sculpt a beautiful statue only to have some drunkard pee on it.

Few other songs on the album manage to be both great and awful in equal measure, although when this album is in full Radiohead form like on the appropriately titled “Radio Cure” it is truly maddening. It is like having some guy at a party idly noodling on his guitar, and refusing to just play a damn song.

In other places, like on “Kamera” or “War on War” the songs are free and easy. They aren’t that exciting on their own, but they have a nice rhythm to them that makes you want to slap your knee and tap your foot, so points for that.

Although it takes a while to warm up, mid-way in the band finds its groove with some fine tracks, the first and best of which is “Jesus, etc.” which captures the new atmospheric production the band has been fumbling for, but without sacrificing the exceptional songwriting. The chorus of this song felt like an apology for the album’s excesses:

“Tall buildings shake
Voices escape singing sad sad songs
Tuned to chords strung down your cheeks
Bitter melodies turning your orbit around.”

I love the oddly placed rhymes and reliance on assonance in this verse that comes alive under front-man Tweedy’s unique phrasing.

Jesus, etc.” launches a pretty solid run on “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” with the depressing “Ashes of American Flags,” the light-hearted nostalgia of “Heavy Metal Drummer” and the ‘soul music on Quaaludes’ feel of “I’m the Man Who Loves You.” These songs all have little flaws – the first two fade into annoying sound experiments similar to the album’s opening track and the third needs one less hit of Quaaludes, but they form a nice grouping and have quality songwriting holding them up.

Near the end of the album, “Pot Kettle Black” and “Poor Places” feel a lot more like the earlier Wilco sound that I prefer. “Poor Places” has a combination of yearning and intellectual discovery that always makes me think of first-year university. Even the odd bits of disjointed rag time piano in “Poor Places” can’t keep me from liking this song and its too-clever lyrics like:

“There’s bourbon on the breath
Of the singer you love so much
He takes all his words from the books
You don’t read anway.”

Rap artists borrow famous riffs to make hits, and we writers quote other writers to impress girls. I regret nothing.

The final track, “Reservations” certainly gave me some. It is another seven minute monstrosity with a tail on it longer than a snake, and equally hard to love. The album only has 11 songs and 51 minutes of playing time, but because of mood-crap like “Reservations” it still feels too long. If I wanted to listen to this kind of atmospheric blubbering, I’d put on a tape of whale songs to help me sleep.

Based on the strong songwriting foundation of “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” I gave it three stars, but that is the critic in me speaking more than the fan. The good stuff on this album is like a Tiramisu cake, sweet, but excessively layered with a bunch of stuff that is too rich for me to enjoy. I just want to scrape off the delicious icing and leave the rest of it for the waiter to discover under my napkin as I’m putting on my coat.

Best tracks: Jesus etc., I’m the Man Who Loves You, Poor Places

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