Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot - Review
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critics' view

As with any of the bands lumped by lazy journalists into the vague bracket of 'Alt Country' Wilco's successive releases see them break any remaining preconceptions into tiny pieces. Yes, there's an element of country but only in as much as there seems to be an element of everything here. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot will undoubtedly fox (sorry) even regular listeners on first listen, but repeated plays show it to be a veritable chinese puzzle: multi-faceted and knowing no recognisable boundaries. These facts are, perhaps, what Jeff Tweedy needs to know more than anything right now, for the genesis of this album was nothing if not painful. It was worth it, Jeff.

Blame the critical success of previous album Summerteeth but raising commercial expectations in a major record label was always going to cause problems. So much so in fact that YHF was rejected by Reprise as too left-field and in the ensuing tensions Tweedy and Co. lost guitarist Jay Bennett and their record deal. Following a small tour, a $50,000 price tag to buy back the master tapes and a new deal with Nonesuch (distributed by Warners, go figure…) one would expect the 18 month-old opus to have lost a little of its newness; but no. This sounds like the sound of next year built out of the wreckage of the past, and built to last.

While the first track "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart" follows Tweedy's lo-fi acoustic template, it's immediately obvious that two things are different. One is the more finely-tuned craft behind the song structures. Make no mistake (as Reprise obviously did), this is a great POP album as much as anything else. Songs like "War On War" with its jangly chorus and "Heavy Metal Drummer" which wryly details a true middle-American love affair with Kiss, burst with great hooks and sumptuous arrangements. The second great new thing is Jim O'Rourke's job on the mixing desk. An album of such contrasts as the dour lament "Ashes Of American Flags" and the Beck-like silliness of "I'm The Man That Loves You" (top Neil Young circa-"Loner" guitar here!) deserves an attention to production detail that will allow it to rise above, say, the next Wallflowers release. What seems slapdash on first listen is, in fact, irresistably assured and locked into place by a sonic palette which veers between charmingly ambient ("Heavy Metal Drummer") and disarmingly jarring ("Ashes&" and "Poor Places").

What Wilco realise is that this is all acceptable currency to the global audience and, while retaining a sense of melodic stability is as key to their formula as anything else, they need never aplogise for their increasingly eclectic approach. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot will outlast any tags you dare to put on it, and then some…

Chris Jones
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The BBC's album reviews ended in 2013, although the pages are archived for retrospective reading.
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