Wilco is another band that I waited too long to get into. Until they performed “Hate It Here” on Saturday Night Live last year, I had never even heard them play – in spite of the fact that fellow music nerds like my friend Peter have been singing their praises for years. So a couple of weeks ago I went out and bought a copy of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, their fourth and overall best selling album, and today I finally got around to putting it on.
It’s clear from the start why everybody seems to think this is such a great album. It’s a rich and atmospheric record, but it maintains a straightforward pop sensibility at times when lesser records would run off the rails and get bogged down in pretention. There’s a lot happening on this record, but never at the expense of songs that are alternately catchy and compelling.
Supposedly, Reprise refused to release this album in 2001 because they figured it wouldn’t have enough crossover pop success. The band offered the album for free via their website, and it finally got a commercial release on Nonesuch the following year. Hindsight is 20/20, but you can’t help but wonder if anyone at Reprise had to answer for passing on what turned out to be the group’s most critically and commercially successful record to date. The fact that Reprise and Nonesuch are both AOL Time Warner subsidiaries probably calmed them down at least a bit.
It may be country-tinged, and it’s certainly a little rough around the edges here and there. At certain times, it almost sounds like the whole thing is about to come crashing down. But there’s hardly anything inaccessible about this record; songs like “Kamera” and “War on War” are sweety melodic, tracks like “Poor Places” and “Reservations” are hauntingly heavy, and the album as a whole is a successful and highly listenable balance of those two extremes.
One of the reasons I wanted to start with this album, aside from it being one of their most notable, is the fact that Wilco samples The Conet Project extensively. They did so without the proper permissions and wound up getting sued, but that’s another story. Indeed, the project itself has an interesting history of its own, and it’s worth reading up on if you feel like getting lost in Wikipedia for a while.
At any rate, it’s a mighty fine album, and worth checking out. I probably didn’t need to take the time to tell you that, since I’m sure I’m the last to hear it. But I’m glad I finally gave it my first listen, and I can tell it’ll be the first of many.
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