A musical and lyrical meditation

Album Review

April 24, 2002|By Greg Kot | Greg Kot,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is the best album in Wilco's career, and, had it come out last year as scheduled, it would have topped many year-end Top-10 lists.

But that doesn't mean diddly in record-company hallways. Wilco's commercial impact makes it a gnat on the forearm of the pop-culture Goliath.

But Foxtrot isn't merely an album aimed at some elite audience of cult followers. Its themes couldn't be more universal; it's a meditation both musical and lyrical on what it means to live in the world's most prosperous country.

As Jeff Tweedy sings on "Ashes of American Flags": "I want a good life/With a nose for things/A fresh wind and bright sky/To enjoy my suffering."

The music reflects this ambivalence by merging opposites: the tunefulness of pop and the chaos of noise, the reassuring strum of an acoustic guitar and the discomforting hum of radio static, the warmth of Tweedy's voice and the icy swirl of lost-in-space keyboards.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a highly personal and idiosyncratic work crafted by five musicians - Tweedy, drummer Glenn Kotche, keyboardist Leroy Bach, bassist John Stirratt and multi-instrumentalist/engineer Jay Bennett (who has since left the band) - and mixed by master arranger and Sonic Youth collaborator Jim O'Rourke.

It announces its intentions in the opening seconds of the seven-minute epic "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart," a kaleidoscope of distorted keyboards and off-kilter percussion that suggests early Pink Floyd.

Tweedy's voice is relaxed, almost sleepy, as if he's continuing a conversation he began in a dream.

Slowly, reality intrudes: "What was I thinking when I let go of you?" After more than four minutes, the disparate strands of sound that shoot through the mix are suddenly pulled together by a handful of gospel piano chords, and the song lurking within - "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" - is revealed, a majestic anthem all the more powerful because it never telegraphs its intentions until the end.

"Kamera" pulls back from this wide-screen sound for a more sparse, raw approach that suggests one of Prince's early new-wave songs, circa "Dirty Mind," with Kotche tapping out a backbeat on floor tiles.

On "Radio Cure," Kotche's drumming becomes a second narrative voice, his textured sounds enhancing the song's theme of disintegration.

Judged purely in terms of potential "hits," the album isn't a black hole, as Reprise implied when it cut the band loose last year.

On the contrary, Foxtrot contains a handful of catchy, concise tracks that should at least entice some of America's more adventurous radio programmers (all five of them): "I'm the Man Who Loves You," "War on War" and the sweetly nostalgic shuffle of "Heavy Metal Drummer."

But that's not what this album is about. It's meant to hang together as a 51-minute, 11-song listening experience, a journey into an America we all know, but haven't heard in quite this way ever before.

Call it an American classic, and pity Reprise for taking a pass on it.

Greg Kot is pop music critic for the Chicago Tribune.


Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch Records) ****

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.