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Wilco | Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (label TBC)
Like an act that gets you expelled from school, there's something undeniably fascinating about an album that causes its makers to get dropped from their label. In this case it's Reprise who, not seeing YHF as the kind of beast that can shift ten million units, have cut the band loose under the disclaimer of economic viability. That the album is also said to be the cause for the departure of Jay Bennett, (Tweedy's second in command) makes this an even more tantalising proposition. Anyone looking for a continuation of 'Summer Teeth's' hyper pop will be sorely disappointed and it's to Tweedy's live collaboration with Jim O' Rourke last year that we should be looking. It becomes immediately clear on the shimmering first track I'm Trying To Break Your Heart, just how far he's steered the band away from the testosterone power pop / stadium rock of their last album. Starting with a few disconnected keyboard lines, slowly throbbing, the song gradually (almost reluctantly) pulls itself together for the entrance of Tweedy's world weary voice. Then, just as it's taking shape, it folds and disperses into itself, constantly threatening to break down - a seemingly random collision of piano notes, what sounds like a zither being abused and electronic sounds, scratching and ebbing at the surface. It's a marvelous opener, the most adventurous thing that Wilco have ever done, their 'Kid A', if you will - but, unlike Radiohead, Wilco haven't lost sight of what makes their songs tick. Radio Cure continues the transformation, its funereal pace and noise intrusions creating an eerie, opiated atmosphere that soaks all the triumphalism from Tweedy's chorus, leaving only regret and sorrow. Ashes of American Flags is another lo-fi treasure, teetering on its own collapse as it heads into a vigorous musique concrète coda. You suddenly wonder where the traditional Byrds-y guitars that have been Wilco's trademark are. Well, they're gone - put to rest or buried, it doesn't matter. YHF is primarily constructed from drums and layers of keyboards - if this is all beginning to sound like Krautrock to you then you're not far off. Kamera, with its double tracked vocals and 60's feel, sounds like The Turtles being played by Can while War On Want is powered by Keyboard UFO sounds worthy of Stereolab. Reprise were right. There're no singles on YHF that will 'break' Wilco (though God knows they're big enough already). The closest the album gets is the lilting drum machine groove of Heavy Metal Drummer, all 'Dazed And Confused' by way of 'Almost Famous' ("I miss the innocence I've known / Playing Kiss covers, beautiful and stoned.") Still, this is no avant-garde left field work that is eminently reviewable but virtually unlistenable - Tweedy's no Stockhausen and at the heart of each of these songs is a little pop gem. While some songs are too unfocused and Tweedy's lyrics are often weak the record still manages to hold together well, using space and arrangements of Baroque complexity in tandem to create an album that sounds like a radio fading in and out from a distant land, mysterious and fragmented, trembling in the air. It won't put him on the bedroom of every teenage girl's wall but it's a record Tweedy needed to make to halt Wilco's slide into stadiumland and, for that, it's one hell of a brave and welcome move.
CWAS #9 - Winter 2002