Wilco takes the right steps


April 23, 2002



The best album of 2001 finally arrives in record stores today, eight months after its planned release last September. But Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" was definitely worth the wait.

The controversy surrounding this incredible disc began last June, shortly before the Chicago band played a triumphant Fourth of July concert in Grant Park. Recorded in the group's loft on the Northwest Side and mixed by avant-garde noisemaker Jim O'Rourke at Soma Studio in Wicker Park, the group's fourth album represents even more of an evolution than the leap from the country-rock of 1996's "Being There" to the ornately orchestrated pop of 1999's "Summerteeth."

"I feel like a late bloomer," singer-songwriter Jeff Tweedy told the Sun-Times last year. "This record makes me feel like I could make a lot better records. Not that I go back and think, 'Oh, that record's obsolete.' They're each their own thing. But I just like not feeling completely comfortable, not feeling completely confident that I know a formula or I know some approach to making music that works."

Alien synthesizers, unsettling strings and the fractured, Capt. Beefheart-style rhythms of new drummer Glenn Kotche combine with Tweedy's familiar jangling acoustic guitar and plaintive vocals to open broad new vistas for a band that has long been considered one of the standard bearers of the alternative country movement. But when the quartet handed this ambitious new music to its label Reprise last spring, the reaction was: "We don't hear a hit." And hits are all that matters in the increasingly corporatized, bottom-line-conscious corporate music world.

Wilco and Reprise, a division of AOL Time Warner, parted company, and the band spent several months sorting through its options. In the interim, it made the album available to fans as a free download on the Web. And as the buzz built, the error of Reprise's ways became increasingly apparent.

Eventually, Wilco signed with Nonesuch Records, a different division of AOL Time Warner--which means that the megacorporation effectively paid for the same record twice, as Tweedy is now fond of saying. Few things are sweeter in life than having the last laugh at the expense of one's critics. But as far as the music industry is concerned, the real test of "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" will come next week when SoundScan sales figures become public.

Will the disc match or outsell "Being There" (which sold 208,000 copies in the United States) and "Summerteeth" (154,000 sold)? Or will distributing the music for free on the Internet prove to have hurt Wilco at the cash register?

Regardless of what the album sells, it is an artistic triumph. In the last two weeks, the disc has been hailed as a masterpiece by the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Billboard and countless other publications, confirming what the Sun-Times said months ago: Tweedy is one of the most inventive songwriters and most poignant wordsmiths of his generation, and songs such as "War on War" and "Ashes of American Flags" have taken on even more resonance in the wake of Sept. 11.

"I feel like this is a really hopeful album," Tweedy said last summer. "There are some dismal lyrics and ugly sounds, but every song to me has a positive element. In 'War on War,' the line, 'You have to learn how to die if you want to be alive'--that's something I believe is pretty much a blanket statement for the whole record. You're not going to experience life unless you completely surrender to failure."

That statement seems to have taken on added meaning as well, in light of the group's difficulties in finding a home for this album.

Also arriving in stores today are two other Wilco-related releases. "Chelsea Walls" (Rykodisc) is a collection of spartan, mostly instrumental mood music that Tweedy and Kotche crafted for the soundtrack of the Ethan Hawke film (scheduled to open here later this spring). The disc also includes one new Wilco track ("Promising") and an effective cover of "Jealous Guy" by jazz great Jimmy Scott.

Viewed by many fans as the sonic architect of the lush "Summerteeth," multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett also played a key role on "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" before breaking with Wilco in what may or may not have been an amicable split. His new effort, "The Palace at 4 a.m. (Part I)," is also out today on Undertow Records.

Crafted with longtime collaborator Edward Burch, the disc finds Bennett continuing to explore beautiful, "Pet Sounds"-style orchestrations full of sparkling horns and shimmering keyboards. But as impressive as the arrangements are, the songs are limited by Bennett's flat, narrow vocal range and a pedestrian lyrical approach that suffers all the more from the unfair but inevitable comparisons to Tweedy.


Rating for "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" (left): ****

Rating for "Chelsea Walls: Original Music by Jeff Tweedy": **1/2

Rating for "The Palace at 4 a.m. (Part I)": ***