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A new sound for one of America's great bands,
This review is from: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Audio CD)
During the period following Wilco's last studio release, the excellent "Summerteeth", the band fell into dispute with their record company over the more progressive nature of this album. The result was a fractious period when it looked at times as if the album would never see the light of day, destined to reside in the dusty vaults of a major label. With a new record deal, Wilco have been able to release their most experimental work to date.
The chronology, and Wilco's development as a band, runs as follows. Release a homage to the great history of American popular country-rock music ("Being There"), and follow it up with an album that seamlessly incorporated their influences into a magical mystery tour of musical genres, halfway between "indie" rock, country and electronica without actually hitting any of these styles full on. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot builds on Summerteeth's experimentation and pushes this new style to the very limits.
Opening track "I am trying to break your heart" summarises the extensions to Wilco's sound - swirling keyboards and snippets of electronic bleeps underpin a dark, sinister love song. In the same way that Big Star's later works sounded as if they could fall apart at any moment, it's difficult to see where this track is going until the conclusion sweeps the listener headfirst into Kamera. This is much more the traditional Wilco sound, but stripped down to include a full sounding acoustic guitar that drives the rhythm along. This pretty much sets the blueprint for the tracks to come, a mixture of great rock songs with unexpected arrangements.
The masterpiece of the album has to be 'Jesus Etc.', with plaintive violins holding the minimal arrangement together while Tweedy delivers possibly his most affecting (and effective) vocal performance yet. It's one of those moments that send shivers down your spine, when everything clicks together at the same point just perfectly. Throughout the album, Jeff Tweedy's voice sounds as heartbroken and forlorn as ever, and the creative musicianship and imagination are every bit as good as you'd expect from a band boasting Tweedy and co-writer Jay Bennett (who has since left to pursue a solo career).
It's wonderful, different, challenging listen. Fans of Being There, that did not buy Summerteeth, may not welcome this change in sound with open arms, but for those of us that have lived with both albums for years, after a few listens, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot reveals itself to be every bit as great as we could have possibly hoped for. Even if Jay Bennett's departure draws an end to this band's golden era, Wilco have been good enough to leave us three of the greatest rock albums of the last twenty years to remember them by.