Friday, May 29, 2009

Wilco (The Reviews) Part 4

Every Friday until June 26th, Hightower and Jones will review an album from Wilco's catalog to celebrate Wilco's seventh studio release, Wilco (The Album) (in stores June 30th). With all formalities out of the way, let continue with...

Wilco loses members and briefly becomes another major label casualty while making a career-defining album and, best of all, it's documented on camera.
Before continuing, Hightower and Jones wants to take a moment to honor Jay Bennett. His contributions as a musician/producer to Being There, Summerteeth, Mermaid Avenue Vol. 1 and 2, and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot helped shaped Wilco's sound during that period and his abilities as a songwriter were, and always will be, invaluble to Wilco's catalog. Thank you for all of your contributions. Your talents will be missed. Jay Bennett (1963-2009).

One of the most notable elements of this record is the way the record began its recording...with the firing of longtime drummer Ken Coomer. After demoing the material with Coomer and performing with side-project, Loose Fur, Jeff Tweedy wanted something different with the new album. It should have the experimental freedom and looseness of his side project and it was something that he felt Coomer couldn't bring to the album. Coomer was fired and Glenn Kotche (Loose Fur) was brought in and multi-instrumentalist Leroy Bach contributed various performances to the album.

From there, multiple takes on the album's 11 tracks were recorded. Each of them different from the previous take and all of them worth listening to. That is the appeal of the album. Like Summerteeth, it is an album filled with experimentation but unlike the previous recording, it is that of a band experimenting with new sounds instead of two men locked away in a studio overdubbing instruments until there isn't much of a band left on the recording. While Bennett and Tweedy wrote the majority of this album, each member provides their own contributions to each track especially on the track "Heavy Metal Drummer" where the drums keep a steady beat while occasionally breaking into an almost electronic beat with pianos and synths sprinkled on top of the song throughout various parts.

The songs are among the best songs Wilco has ever recorded and are definitely worth hearing in their demoed form. From the demos, you can see the band was interested in going in a whole different direction musically than their last three albums while maintaining the artistic growth that had been building up since Being There was released five years earlier. This album is the culmination in what they had been working on all this time, an album that branches them away from the Alt-Country audience yet retains their older fans while introducing the band to a brand new audience all together. This album bares very little resemblance to the same band that recorded A.M. Lap steel guitar, mandolin, dobro and banjo have been replaced additional piano and snyth, somber musical tones and various other effects and sounds like tape loops, feedback and CB radio loops.

Every great album is met with a fair share of difficulty in its creation. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot definitely had its share of difficult times. As stated earlier, it began with the firing of Coomer. Along the way, Bennett and Tweedy argued over the mixing of the album as they both had different ideas for the album's sound. Bennett wanted to focus on the songs as individuals while Tweedy wanted to focus on the album as a whole. One particular moment was captured in the documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart in which they debate on the segueway between "Ashes Of American Flags" and "Heavy Metal Drummer" which is resolved by Tweedy leaving the mixing room to vomit due to migranes. The mixing was resolved by bringing in Jim O'Rourke (musician, producer, ex-Sonic Youth multi-instrumentalist) to handle the mixing.

After the album's completion, Bennett was kicked out of the band for, depending on how you look at it, overstepping his boundaries within his position in the band. The truth is that he and Tweedy's relationship soured with the production of the album. All but three songs on the album were written by them together and they are very excellent songs. The production presents the band at their best. It all comes down to the mixing problem. They never saw eye to eye and it was percieved that Bennett had taken on too much and wasn't willing to step away from his vision. That led to his dismissal but the band had bigger problems than that.

After the firing of Bennett, Wilco was fired from their label, Reprise. Reprise didn't hear any hits and had no interest in continuing their relationship with a band that, despite critical success, wasn't bringing them any money. Fans heard about this and exchanged demos and bootlegs of the album. Wilco then took the album back and streamed it on their website for free so that everyone could hear it. Word spread around about the mysterious, unreleased album and that same word placed Wilco in a interesting position. Here, they have an album that everyone is now talking about but can't find in a store. Nonesuch comes in and Tweedy decides they are offering the things needed for their band, mainly artistic freedom, and signs with the label. The funniest part to that is Nonesuch is owned by Warner Bros. who also owns Reprise. Warner paid for the same album twice. That is a sweet victory that even Tom Petty hasn't even pulled off...yet.

Finally, a year after it's completed, losing a crucial member and touring, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is availble in stores. Not only that but it goes on to achieve gold status and becomes Wilco highest selling album. It introduced them a new audience and is considered to be one of the best albums of this decade. Join Hightower and Jones next week when Wilco continues to experiment but this time on cruise control with A Ghost Is Born.

Suggested Tracks
"Jesus Etc."
"Ashes Of American Flags"
"Heavy Metal Drummer"
"I'm The Man Who Loves You"
"Poor Places"

Buy Yankee Hotel Foxtrot here.
Get the demos here and the engineer demos here.
Buy I Am Trying To Break Your Heart here.

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