The big recording labels have been digging themselves into a hole for a long time now. While they blame poor sales on everything from electronic file swapping (which has actually increased the purchasing habits of most people I talk to) to September 11th (a downright offensive suggestion from a bunch of greedy stuffed-suits), the fact of the matter is that they're ignoring the development of talent that might pay off in the long run for a quick buck (which means absolutely shit given the Mariah Carey payout debacle, to mention one instance).
Of course, all this ties in with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in that it was supposed to be released on a major label. Nearly everyone has heard the story by now, but in case you haven't, I'll try to give a quick rundown. Basically, Wilco went into the studio and recorded this release (with uber-producer Jim O'Rourke, who mixed it all down). Warner Brothers (the label they were on) heard the recordings and said that they were "career ending" and wouldn't release the disc without major changes. Wilco stuck by their creation, eventually buying it back from the label, getting out of the contract, and broadcasting it from their website for months on end. Finally, Nonesuch (home to Kronos Quartet, Philip Glass, and ironically a sub-label of Warner Brothers) signed the group and agreed to release the disc. When it came out, it debuted in the Billboard top 20 in sales (easily the best for the group) and critics and fans everywhere gave a joyous middle-finger up to The Man.
Nearly everybody likes an underdog, and the above story is just a little sliver of what makes Yankee Hotel Foxtrot such a triumphant release. As you can probably guess by now, I enjoy the hell out of this album, and although I wasn't a huge fan of the group before this release (the only album I have of theirs is Being There, which is also quite good), after having heard these 11 new tracks I'll definitely pay more attention to them in the future. Musically, it's way beyond anything they've done before, mixing all kinds of different styles into a cohesive release that has everything from drone-based tracks to straightforward pop-rock.
The disc opens with "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart," and it's easy to hear how things have changed. The track feels loose at 7 minutes long, yet doesn't drag out for too long. After starting out with some nice organ sounds and intermittent percussion, a guitar and bass enter the fray, and eventually the track builds to include piano, and all kinds of other strange percussion sounds, eventually rambling out to a shimmering ending. Following things up with a quick change, the group lets loose with the tight sing-along of "Kamera" before the more experimental "Radio Cure." The latter track features some of the best and most surreal vocals by Jeff Tweedy to date, and the album as a whole reflect even more great things.
Honestly, the album never really hits a track that could even be called weak. I'm not sure if it's the work by O'Rourke or the progression of the group (or a little of both), but this disc is so multi-layered that it's easy to hear new things many many times after the first listen. The group comes back with more experimental pop-rock tracks like "Heavy Metal Drummer" and "War On War," while "Jesus, etc" swaggers along with a funky rhythm section, some nice organ sounds, and string quartet. They rock out with skronky tracks like "I'm The Man Who Loves You" and pull off touching tracks like "Ashes Of American Flags" with equal amounts of style. By the time the album reaches the droning album closer of "Reservations" (with only the vocals of Tweedy and a piano drifting through layers and layers of soundscapes), the vocals of "I've got reservations about so many things / but not about you." just resonate even more. An excellent album from a group that I'd been indifferent about for awhile, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot puts them in the forefront of "rock" bands creating music today.