Wilcoast to Coast: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

A couple of American aquarium drinkers, took a break from assassin-ing down the avenue to discuss Wilco’s crowning achievement.

As always, I’m going through Wilco’s body of work with the aid of my friend, Jimi, who actually knows things about Wilco, why certain production decisions were made, whereas I have a passable familiarity with the band and their antics.

It took about three months to complete this edition, and boy, is it not in anyway reflected reflected by the actual content.

Still, without further ado, here’s our Yankee Hotel Foxtrot analysis, enjoy.

 

Ben: We’re here!

It’s peak Wilco. The band’s non-debatable high water mark, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

It’s one of the most critically fawned over albums of the first decade of the 21st century, and it was made by our milquetoast boys from Belleville.

As we’ve noted in previous rambles, Wilco was not a money-maker for their record label. The band had their champions within the label, but when AOL and Time Warner merged, there was a shakeup, and when the dust settled, things were decidedly non-friendly to a certain gently experimental power pop band.

Still, Wilco pressed on with making YHF, and ironically, as the AOL merger would eventually end Wilco’s deal with Warner, the band work-shopped their ideas online, and after a buyout, an online release to thorough adulation would be the first indicator that Wilco had finally created a commercially successful album.

And what an album it is.

To me, this album is The White Album, but shrouded in a gentle, electronic corona. From open to close this album contains some of Wilco’s best melodies and obtuse lyrics that find a surprising emotional resonance.

I adore this album, and I know you do too.

I’m sure my introduction skipped some pertinent information about Jay Bennet and Jeff Tweedy’s Spider-Man v. Venom-like struggle for control of the album, while they collaborated more closely than ever before and popped opiates like Tic Tacs, so feel free to fire away your own opening salvo, and share with me your biggest takeaway from YHF.

 

 

Jimi: Holy shit, what an album this is. I know I’m using my characteristic tact with that statement, but when confronted with an album this good, it cannot be overstated. This is the cornerstone on which Wilco’s legend is built, as well as possibly the greatest album to ever come out of Chicago.

I’m not quite sure I would characterize this as their White Album, which was built on the Beatles fracturing their psyche into four distinct parts. Rather, this is the sound of a band pulling together and collectively firing on all cylinders. Special attention should be paid to the friction between Bennett and Tweedy, however. Sam Jones’s excellent documentary “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” had the good fortune of capturing the recording of the album, from inception to tour. In one of the movie’s most potent scenes, Bennett calls a migraine-ridden Tweedy to the recording studio to work on the mastering of “Ashes of American Flags.” Bennett in particular is obsessing over the orchestral squall that closes the song and the amount of split-seconds that should happen between the end of that section and the piano chords that introduce “Heavy Metal Drummer.” Tweedy just wants the problem solved. The tension between the two is key to the magic of the album: Tweedy writes the killer pop songs, while Bennett’s obsessiveness leads to the level of detail and craftsmanship. Without Tweedy, we wouldn’t have the country-power pop mashup of “Kamera,” while we wouldn’t have the perfectly calibrated climaxes of “Poor Places.” The album simply cannot work without either of them, or the stellar production of noise musician Jim O’Rourke.

My first impression of the album is one of an album that paints an impressionistic portrait of Chicago. People enjoy this album practically everywhere, but for us Chicagoans, these songs can’t help but bring up sense memories. “Jesus, Etc.” is a late-night walk downtown with a lover; “Kamera” cruises down Lake Shore Drive on a spring afternoon; and “I’m The Man Who Loves You” is a killer concert at Lincoln Hall.

At least that’s what struck me on first listen. Does the Chicago connection work for you? We both know there are a multitude of great tracks on this album (and I’d like to give every one of them at least a passing mention), but are there any moments that don’t work for you?

Ben: First, I’m going to defend my White Album stance. “Radio Cure” has a sudden feudal setting that reminds me of “Cry Baby Cry”, but it goes deeper.
While, Bennett and Tweedy sequestered themselves and collaborated, the two men fiercely fought for control of the album, and that unwillingness to compromise is what makes me think of The Beatles’ most fractured album.
To be honest, I don’t know if it’s my bizarre matriculation about the South that lasted for five years, or some personal failing, but aside from knowing Wilco is a Chicago band and the occasionally reference to the city in their work, I don’t know if I would have drawn the connection organically.

I love, love, love “Heavy Metal Drummer”, but I sometimes wonder if it would’ve been better as a standalone lark. It’s tremendous on its own, but as a piece of this album, its always seemed odd to me.

Also, worth noting, but I’ve probably listened to “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” at least once a week every week since I was 12.

Any personal connections you’ve made to this album? What works the best? What comes the closest to not working for you, because I suspect there is nothing you find completely without function?

Jimi: I feel this is more like Wilco’s Sgt. Pepper’s, where they use sonic space to conjure up physical space, but that’s my personal opinion.

I understand some of the hate towards “Heavy Metal Drummer,” which has a bifurcated reputation as both one of the band’s most reviled “early” songs and as one of their most underrated. In “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart”, the band talks about how, with this album, they would take each song and deconstruct it until they ended up at the most “interesting” result. You can see this in “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” which starts as a folk ballad in the movie to become a noise-pop epic (before finding second life as a soul standard, courtesy of JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound), and in “I’m the Man Who Loves You,” which seemed destined to transmute into the arena rock stomper that Wilco eventually turned it into. “Heavy Metal Drummer” never seems to have gotten this treatment. However, for me, this is what I like to call the “mask dropping moment,” where we’re reminded that Wilco, for all their formal experimentation, are a band that genuinely likes playing together. It gets the details of local bands in the Chicago suburbs right. Plus, on a sentimental note, it’s the first Wilco song I ever heard, while you and I were driving through Canada as high school freshmen.

For me, the highest moments of this album are among the best in 2000s music. “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” is shambling, so it takes a few spins to realize how well constructed it is; each seemingly improvised moment is constructed to hit at the right emotional level. The whole thing makes sense when it shouldn’t. “Jesus, Etc.” is a song that by all means shouldn’t work, a country-pop lament with neosoul touches that make it sound like something the Doobie Brothers or ELO would’ve recorded at their most understated. Instead, it’s one of the best songs on the album, philosophical and heartbreaking. “I’m the Man Who Loves You” teases you with a serrated guitar into before turning into a sweet folk jam. “Poor Places” has a slow build to a jaw-dropping moment of realization: “It makes no difference to me.”

As far as things that don’t work, the ballads on the album took me much longer to get into than the other songs. I wasn’t sure when I was first getting into the album at first if this was due to the somewhat alienating nature of the album or if it was what I call “the ballad problem” that most young bands have. That is, unlike faster songs, slower ones can’t pull you in with their energy so they have to pull you in some other way (for illustration, listen to Bruce Springsteen’s “Mary, Queen of Arkansas” from Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ and then listen to “Racing in the Street” from Darkness on the Edge of Town). But the more I listened to this album, the more I realized how much the ballads pack into such a small space. “Ashes of American Flags” is a power ballad changed into something far more interesting: a hazy summer lament. “Radio Cure” is only five minutes, but packs enough in there for repeated listens.

What do you think this album improved on from Summerteeth? Why do you think this album resonated in a way their previous albums had not?

Ben: On Summerteeth a lot of the experimental audio flourishes seemed purely cosmetic. The buzzing frequencies on “I’m Always in Love” seem like a weird but enjoyable add-on to a gentle pop song.

On YHF, the sonic weirdness does some serious heavy lifting for songs’ melodies. The chiming and whirring on “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” establish the song’s hook, they aren’t just there for texture. Quick sidebar: I’ve always though Miss Havisham was undoubtedly a huge fan of that track.

And, of course, like all good, great and above average Wilco albums, YHF‘s success is largely determined by its hooks. For all the oddball sounds on the album, almost every song can be hummed absentmindedly.

Wilco simply married some of best songs with some of the band’s most interesting instrumentation and had painstaking production preside over the union. It really is as simple as a good band hitting all their marks, I think.

What’s your theory for the band’s unexpected transcendence?

Also, picking the 20 best Wilco songs seems pretty easy until we come to this album, but hacking away at YHF is daunting. What tracks make your 20?

I’ve always heard this album is what gave major labels more patience with experiment art-rock bands in the mid-aughts. Do you think we really have this album to thank for some of the stronger entries into the Flaming Lips’ oeuvre? Aside from that, does this album have a legacy outside of it being Wilco’s best-loved album? I don’t recall it spamming a wave of breezy, experimental Americana-pop imitators.

Is there any way we can protract discussion of this album for a few more months? In my opinion we’re about to see a pretty steep decline for our next chat.

Jimi: In “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”, Rolling Stone critic David Fricke notes that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot had to scare Reprise Records when it was delivered because it doesn’t say, upfront, who exactly it is for. Turns out, it appealed to practically everyone. The optimism present in even the darkest songs worked like comfort food at the dawn of an uncertain new millenium. The band really tapped into something elemental about living in America at the dawn of the Bush years. There’s a reason that certain conspiracy-minded listeners claim that the album predicted 9/11 (the album’s intended release date).

In terms of my 20, I could definitely see “Jesus, Etc.” and “Poor Places” having reserved spots on the list. “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” is certainly up there too. The skewed noise ballad “Ashes of American Flags” only seems to get better with every listen. And if there’s one song I pull out to listen to on its own, it’s “Kamera.”

In terms of this album’s influence, I think it was more important for what it signaled rather than the imitators it spawned. It’s hard to overstate how dire the indie rock situation seemed in the early 2000s. Pavement folded in 1999. Neutral Milk Hotel was just beginning to build up their huge cult, but they had quit years before. Respected alternative groups that had broken big the previous decade (Oasis, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam) had already started a depressing slide into irrelevance. The White Stripes hadn’t hit it big yet. The Strokes were just gearing up Is This It? for release. Radiohead seemed to be the only 90s holdover that seemed to continue growing with each new release. Then this album came, and it proved that bands could still make money while making mature, difficult albums. And I believe we’re both shortchanging the sonic influence of this album, considering that it led to one of last year’s best albums, Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear. Both are lushly orchestrated folk albums, with 11 structurally similar tracks.

What songs go in your 20? How do you feel this fits into the indie rock scene of the early 2000s? Any final thoughts on this album?

Ben: I think you’re overselling how dire 2001 was for music.

Jay-z’s best album, The Blueprint, came out on Sept. 11, White Blood Cells was released in July of 2001 and both “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” and “Fell in Love with a Girl” would become massive hit, a truly strange but gleeful of Montreal album came out on famed indie label Elephant 6, Daft Punk released their best album, Discovery, as well.

There were also albums by Modest Mouse, The Avalanches, God Speed! You Black Emperor, The Microphones, Drive-By Truckers, New Pornographers and Outkast that all came out in either ’00 or ’01.

Still, you’re point that a lot of radio-friendly alt bands were yielding diminishing returns. After a locust-like dormancy, my beloved Weezer released their self-titled green album. (And yes, there is going to be a ‘ I barely know ‘er feature where I dive into all the Weezer albums).

Two years earlier, Beck released Midnite Vultures, and while it is hands down the best Beck album, oh man, was it ever not received that way, and he wouldn’t rehab his reputation until ’02s Sea Change.

There was definitely a changing of the guard feeling, and Wilco’s warm poptimism was definitely a retreat for a lot of people who considered themselves musically in the know.

As far as songs that would crack my top 20 Wilco tunes, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”, “Radio Cure” and “Jesus, Etc” are my no-brainers. “Kamera”, “Heavy Metal Drummer” and “I’m the Man Who Loves You” are all delightful, but probably don’t quite make the list.

 

I think this album had a profound effect on the immediate music landscape in a couple of ways.

One, albums like Sea Change and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots both got made and received studio support. Bands such as Spoon and Band of Horses were able to find their audience and labels could rest assured that slightly experimental Americana had an audience.

Two, the Internet played a huge role in the genesis of this album. Radiohead promoted Kid A with an internet leak, and in my opinion use of the Internet is a big part of the bands’ indelible link.
Wilco sort of leaked this album online, but they also used the net to workshop their songs and provide sort of progress reports on how the album is coming along. It seems damn prescient in 2016, when teasers, studio photo instagrams, Twitter and surprise album streams are a major part of how music is consumed.

I’m a little upset we’re done talking about YHF, because I’m not as wild about what comes next, but hopefully your enthusiasm will carry the day.

 

Wilcoast to Coast: Summerteeth

This took so long, maybe this post about Wilco’s excellent third album should be called Autumnteeth.

Anyway, below is prattling about Summerteeth in the form of the third installment of Wilcoast to Coast–an aimless conversation between my friend Jimi, something of a Wilco expert, and myself, a guy who has heard every Wilco album and has loosely formed but entirely too strong opinions.

Jimi: After branching out with the expansive, uneven Being There, Wilco found themselves in a strange place: they were a critically respected, modestly successful alt-country group for the first time. Where would they go after a double album? They were gifted with an answer in the form of Billy Bragg tapping them for support Mermaid Avenue, a project that found them supplying music for previously unrecorded Woody Guthrie songs. This project helped establish them as one of the most buzzed-about bands in America.

Picking up after recording sessions in Willie Nelson’s studio that produced several demos, Jeff Tweedy and Co. moved back to Chicago and experimented with recording the songs live and adding overdubs using Protools. This approach caused much friction within the group: drummer Ken Coomer and bassist John Stiratt found their roles in the group minimized as Tweedy and multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett began abusing painkillers and producing the album themselves.

It’s easy to see Bennett and Tweedy both growing musically on the album. Bennett’s perfectionist tendencies turn the songs into mini-masterpieces of power pop, while Tweedy’s lyrics bring introspection and ugly feelings (inspired by literature, his own feelings of isolation, and his relationship with his wife) into the mix. The result? An album that was hailed as a masterpiece, while underperforming commercially, even with a radio-friendly edit of lead-off track “Can’t Stand It” that the band’s label tried to turn into a hit.

As perhaps hinted above, I consider Summerteeth to be one of Wilco’s best albums. How do you feel about the album? And do you think the friction within the band was essential to the album?

Ben: I absolutely love Summerteeth. It’s my second favorite Wilco album, and it would probably be most other band’s signature work.

The influence of Bennett is definitely extremely important, and I think the overdubbing and perfectionism yield results more sonically interesting than the band’s previous work.

I’m always a believer in the idea genius flourishes with constraints and slight dilution. It’s why I think Kanye West is an incredibly savvy musician to create via think-tank. He fills his recording sessions with experts and experienced professionals. He works concepts and bounces ideas until he’s satisfied, but the work isn’t produced by one fevered brain. The hired hands are brought about to push a vision, and it all works.

Granted, Tweedy was not imposing mandatory formal attire and financing a Hawaii retreat, but some conflict, surrounding oneself with talented contributors, rather than yes-men and chasing a vision rendered impossible by the comprehensive nature of collaboration worked out great for Kanye and Brian Wilson.

This album doesn’t reach those dizzying heights of complex production, but it’s definitely a more complex sound and one I think ultimately fit Wilco like a glove.

That was my roundabout way of saying friction and different points of view were definitely a critical component of this album.

If I were to recommend a single album that best distills Wilco’s sound, it would probably be this one. It isn’t their masterpiece, but it might be the best representation of what this band is, and it was the first glimpse of Wilco operating at its highest(ha! get it?!? level.

Jimi: This is definitely a great place for Wilco beginners to start. It incorporates a more experimental sound into their work that was only hinted at before. It makes for an album that, paradoxically, doesn’t try so hard as their first two albums but succeeds more often than either A.M. or Being There. The album’s first half, composed mainly of power pop, gets an extra kick from the neo-soul flourishes that Wilco started using for the first time here (see the bells on “Can’t Stand It”).

It’s in the album’s more difficult second half that the album declares its classic status. “Pieholden Suite”  is classic Brian Wilson-style country piece, the title track has a breezy charm that belies the lyrics’ sublime portrait of loneliness, and “My Darling” is a sweet soul piece for Tweedy’s newborn son. The true standout is “Via Chicago,” probably one of Wilco’s three best songs. Beginning with an utterly chilling line (“I dreamed about killing you again last night/And it felt alright to me”), the song evolves into haunting Dylanesque lyricism and a noisy breakdown mirroring the character’s exhaustion and confusion. That haunting opening line evolves, by the end, into a badge of the character’s failure instead of his hatred: he’s been so beaten down by life that he would rather kill the woman he loved than have her watch him lose again.

Ben: The important question is: who wrote the better jar metaphor song, Wilco or Dinosaur Jr.?

Jimi: Well, while I worship at the altar of J. Macsis (as every self-respecting music lover should), I’m calling it for Wilco. Dinosaur Jr.’s song is a perfect piece of indie power pop, but “She’s A Jar” is such a weird, dark song. I mean, it has a haunting melody, perhaps the best harmonica solo of the past three decades, and some of Tweedy’s most Dylanesque lyrics.

Speaking of tracks that call to mind other artists, what do you make of Tweedy’s rewrite of “After the Gold Rush”? Is it just him paying homage to a favorite artist, or can you see some parallels between Young’s elegy for the failed idealism of the sixties and Tweedy’s tale of a murderous lover?

Ben: Probably both.

The parelells are easy to draw between a murderous lover and Baby Boomers killing the laudable if impractical ideals that led to the original summer of love.

Also, Tweedy obviously loves some Neil Young.

It’s interesting we’re discussing so many other artists, because to me this album is absolutely the mark of the sound that defines Wilco for me.

You tend to have a better idea about these things than me, what influence and events created the lightly experimental, breezy power pop on this album?

Also, has an album touching on domestic abuse and intravenous drug use ever been this pleasant?

Jimi: Well, I’m not quite sure what lead to the lightly experimental, breezy  power pop on this album, though if I had to take a stab in the dark, I would have to guess it’s the increased prominence of Jay Bennett. He was definitely the maddening perfectionist of the band (the chimes added to “Can’t Stand It,” while requested by the record company, have Bennett written all over them), plus the guy’s got an obvious love of pop-in-disguise post-punk. His first band (Titanic Love Affair) was named after a Billy Bragg line (and Bragg, despite his sparse instrumentation and far-left politics, certainly had a way with a hook) and his posthumous album was named after a line from a Boomtown Rats song (speaking of which, you could argue that The Fine Art of Surfacing is just as successful at marrying dark lyrics to big hooks).

Another theory I have on the subject is that this was the album Tweedy and Bennett wanted to make all along. Now they could afford to do so. The label (which, at this point, was endlessly supportive of Wilco) was itching for a hit from a band they believed could deliver one and gave them increased resources, including ProTools, which was responsible for the large amounts of overdubs on the album. This also meant that Bennett and Tweedy could record much of the album themselves.

Overall, the album has a purity of vision and a sense of direction Wilco’s previous albums didn’t. The influences are still there (the Beatles, the Band, Neil Young, Brian Wilson), but they make the familiar feel fresh.

Ben: I’m not sure if he’s a fan, but there’s an element of Flying Burrito Brothers in there too.

Bennett and Tweedy as Hillman and Parsons, making Americana music just a little weirder and more honest.

Do you think Wilco would still be releasing quality music if they started 15 years later?

Could you imagine a record label supporting a band through two relative flops, then doubling down on Album No. 3 in the modern music industry?
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And of course, which songs are contenders to crack your 20?

Jimi: Well, honestly, it’s become simultaneously easier and more difficult for labels to keep artists like Wilco on their labels. On the one hand, if a band like Wilco were to flop commercially the first time, they probably would not be able to secure the major funding for a second or third “breakthrough” attempt. On the other hand, labels are much smarter about promoting bands like Wilco. It seems to be almost common knowledge now that a band takes 2-4 albums to really hit their stride. For instance, it wasn’t until the National started getting great reviews with Alligator that the label began promoting them more. And there’s the legendary story about how Merge was completely unprepared for Arcade Fire’s first album to sell as well as it did and responded by basically giving them anything they wanted for their second album.

I’m not sure if Wilco would still be as successful if they had existed 15 years earlier. A big part of the band’s success was using new studio techniques to enliven old, seemingly played-out genres. Without the sense of timing, they would probably be seen as a country-tinged alternative to The Replacements (instead of “an American Radiohead” [I plan on making at least one Radiohead reference in each entry of this series]).

In terms of songs that would qualify for my 20, “Via Chicago” has a guaranteed spot. “A Shot in the Arm” would probably be guaranteed a spot as well. “She’s A Jar” has some of Tweedy’s best lyrics. One song that would probably be on my personal 20 that probably wouldn’t be on anyone else’s is “I’m Always In Love,” a pounding jolt of pure joy that may curiously be one of Wilco’s most popular songs due to its use in an HTC commercial.

I know we’re both salivating to start on album No. 4, so let me ask you what songs go on your personal 20? Any final remarks on Summerteeth?

Ben: I realize I keep picking a handful of songs from every album, which does not bode well for actually producing only 20 Wilco songs.

With that being said, “Shot in the Arm” is awesome, although I slightly prefer the production of alternative mix. It sounds a little warmer to me with the guitar further up in the mix. I like the  charge of a hard strummed guitar replacing some of the swelling springs and the experimental blips and bloops are a bit more evident.

The album mix is prettier, but the alt. take just works for me a little bit better.

I like “I’m Always in Love” an awful lot, but a scant two albums ago, Tweedy sang “Should’ve Been in Love” I mean, make up your mind, Jeff.

Kidding aside, it’s sweetly sentimental and piercing screechy sounds keep time, which is all I could want from a Wilco song.

My off the radar pick, “We’re Just Friends” is enjoyably acerbic in its melancholy, which is always a frequency that resonates with me. Plus, I’ve always thought the song’s harmony, which occasionally seems to swell toward something before flattening back out matches the lyrical theme in a perfect way.

So, put me down for “Shot in the Arm (Remix)”, “We’re Just Friends” and “I’m Always in Love”

Both A.M. and Being There are both good-to-great albums, but honestly, this is the album I would suggest to someone looking to get into Wilco.

Until Television-lite guitars pop up a few more albums down the line, I would say this was really the last major evolutionary step Wilco took.

As you implied, I am ecstatic to move on to Wilco’s fourth album, because (controversial opinion alert) I think it’s at least kind of good. I mean it’s no Jefferson Starship, but it’s held up surprisingly well during the last decade or so.

Editor’s Note: We’ll see if we can knock out Yankee Foxtrot Hotel in fewer than three months.  

Wilcoast to Coast: Being There

It’s been a goal of mine to partake in pun-ridden analysis of a band’s discography. I settled on Wilco, because as a guy from the Chicago suburbs with an appreciation for indie rock, I’ve absorbed their oeuvre through osmosis and mysteriously own every album in their discography.

My friend, James “Jimi” Williams, is an avid Wilco fan and my collaborator in this process. His opinions about Wilco are as informed as mine are ornery.

In our second conversation about Wilco (Wilconversation?) we tackled their sprawling second album.

Ben: After the A.M. was met with a commercial shrug and critical golf clap, it was back to the drawing board for Jeff Tweedy and company.

Tweedy’s personal life was stressful. He added his first son to his family and was dealing with the financial strain of fronting a not particularly successful band.

To make up for the departure of Brian Hennema, Jay Bennett, the only member of Wilco capable of playing a keyboard at the time, joined the fray.

With a new commitment to pushing boundaries and varying their sound Wilco hit the studio and came up with 19 songs.

This creative outpouring was too much for one disc to hold, so Being Therebecame a double album by necessity.

Tweedy fretted the price point of a double album would prohibit sales, and successfully talked Warner Brothers into selling Being Therefor the price of a single album.

While Wilco’s sophomore effort received a warmer critical and commercial reception than A.M., this ended up being a costly move for Warner, and it definitely fueled what would become a disastrous relationship between band and label.

I believe that adequately explains the context surrounding this pretty good album, please let me know about any essential oversights!

As the backhanded compliment pretty good probably gave away, I like Being There. The innate Wilco likability is in full effect, but this album is hardly beyond reproach. For example: I absolutely think there is only one disc of essential material on Being There, and despite a supposed commitment to experimentation, sitting through Being There‘s duration can throw me into a malaise of sameness.

I’ll be elaborating more on those points, but–if memory serves–I think you might like this album a good bit more than I do, so I’m interested in your primary take impressions?

Jimi: First, a couple clarifications. The album was titled Being Thereas a reference to the 1979 Peter Sellers film, which makes sense. The album deals with personal issues through observations of different characters, something Sellers’ Chance the Gardener would have appreciated. Also, the album could have fit onto a single disc. The double album scheme works in my mind as a deliberate separation. The first disc contains more of the album’s pop songs, while the second disc has more of the experimental works. Obviously, there’s some overlap, but I believe this is what Wilco was going for.

Your charge that I like this album a lot more than you do is dead on. As I mentioned in our last entry, the Radiohead comparisons irk me, but their careers do seem to mirror each other in eerie ways. After a critically maligned first album, their second albums took a great leap forward creatively. For Radiohead, that meant going anthemic. For Wilco, this meant retreading their first album, but with some more personality. Like the bluegrass of “That’s Not the Issue?” Here, have a “Forget the Flowers.” The hard rock of “Casino Queen” more your speed? Luckily, “Monday” is essentially the Stones if the album was actually called Exile On State St.

For me, the album’s main pleasures come from the idea that this band is finally discovering who they are: a sweet, country-inflected,  lightly experimental pop group. Some credit for this has to go to Bennett, who’s portrayed in the excellent documentary “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” as a perfectionist to the extreme. Bennett helped out on A.M. (he was given a “Very Special Thanks” in the liner notes), but here the former Titanic Love Affair guitarist (note the Billy Bragg reference, it becomes important later) helps guide Tweedy towards a more experimental sound. This isn’t to say this is Bennett’s album; rather, this album has the hallmarks of Bennett-era Wilco.

Regarding Being There, do you think the differences in our listening formats (I.e. MP3s for you, CDs for me) affects our experiences? Or, to put it more usefully, does the act of changing a CD player make my listening experience different from, say, listening to the entire album in one sitting? What moments of the album drag for you? Do you detect some influences that weren’t present on A.M.?

Ben: Thank you for the clarification, I knew about the Sellers’ film, but I just assumed they couldn’t fit this entire album onto one disc, because I’ve always found Disc 2 very slight.

Being There‘s slightly longer than 77-minute running time surpasses its predecessor by 30 minutes, which in my opinion is just a little bit too much early Wilco in such a confined space. For me, the  last three songs of the first disc and the first two songs of the second disc are kind of a slog. Aside from the disintegration and noise of “Sunken Treasure”, or physically changing a C.D., there isn’t much variance or respite from the gentle, rocking twang.

That particular stretch of the album is the aural equivalent of driving through the cornfield-ridden Midwest.

I know, so far, I have to be coming off as harsh on Being There, but I do actually enjoy this album a lot, it just feels like all the ingredients are present for a fantastic album, and instead of being walloped by greatness, I have to parse through a sprawling, soupy concoction for highlights.

Despite my complaints about sameness, I’m actually completely on board with “Outta Sight(Outta Mind)” and “Outta Mind (Outta Sight)”, and actually wish they were on the same album a la “Out of the Blue(And into the Black)”.

Obviously, there’s only one format suitable for enjoying “Red-Eyed and Blue” and that is through the use of solid state technology.

Joking aside, I think format does have a close tie to music, and I specifically have Disc 1 and Disc 2 separated on my iPod, for the sake of experiencing the album as intended.

I definitely detect influences that weren’t present on A.M. The opening track on Being Thereis different from anything Wilco, Uncle Tupelo or Son Volt had recorded and provides a convenient bookmark for Wilco’s progress toward its creative peak.

Unfortunately, that experimental progress yields to a lot of backsliding. You’re right that “Monday” is a ramped up “Casino Queen”, but I would never say that as a compliment to a song. It’s Wilco’s corniest impulses distilled into a 3-and-a-half minute blast.

Of course, I love the warbling confessional weirdness of “Red-Eyed and Blue” (arguably my second favorite Wilco song), so maybe I’m just diametrically opposed to some of these efforts by default.

I suppose “enjoyable but frustrating” would summarize my feelings for Being Therepretty neatly. There’s a lot to like, there’s signs of growth, but there’s also vast expanses of filler and stagnation.

I was excited to discuss this album, because I want to know why I have it all wrong. Sell me on the merits of Being There‘s heft, and give me your Wilco progress report, how close are they at this point to being great? Favorite songs on the album, and which songs would you consider for a greatest hits comp?

(Side joke: We are following this up with Long Division: A Joy Division analysis, Masturbatory Criticism: our opinions on The Strokes, and Hmm Hmm Hmm, where we consider the works of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, right?)

Jimi: It has always been my dream that an internet search for me would turn up “masturbation.”

I would say, at this point, Wilco, if they haven’t achieved greatest, are at least approaching it at a rapid pace. Honestly, so much thought was put into this album that I don’t know where to begin. I guess it would be easiest to start at the beginning. “Misunderstood” is perhaps the first all-time classic Wilco song, but it’s also so much more than that. It’s Tweedy examining the divide between a musician and his fans from the point of view of a fan at a concert. What’s poignant about it is that it provides a counterpoint to the usual rock star, nobody-understands-me bathos by having the fan be spot on in their assessment of the musician.  At the same time, it’s a kiss-off to Farrar, throwing some of Farrar’s favorite insults about Tweedy back in his face (in particular, the line “You know you’re just a mama’s boy/Positively unemployed” were apparently used by Farrar very often). Musically, it’s a giant leap forward as well: Wilco would reuse the structure (specifically the noise-rock beginning, caused by the band members playing unfamiliar instruments) on “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.” What I’m getting at here is that there’s a reason the band’s website lists it as their most popular songs.

For the longest time, I would have agreed with you that “Sunken Treasure” is a weak moment on the album. But around the fifth or sixth spin of this album, I had a revelation: it’s a companion piece to “Misunderstood.” Whereas the earlier song stated “You still like rock & roll,” “Sunken Treasure” deepens that relationship, adds weight to the idea that “my life was saved by rock & roll.” As you can tell from the change from second-person to first-person, the song flips the narrator from fan to singer.

The country songs on the album also hit me harder. Your stated stretch of five songs actually contains 2 of the best country songs on the album: “What’s the World Got In Store” and “Someday Soon.” This is entirely a personal choice argument, but when Wilco does country here, it feels less like the band is playing dress-up than it did on A.M.

I could go on and on about my favorite moments on the album: the southern-fried funk of “Kingpin,” the mournful ballad “The Lonely 1” (a sort of prequel to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s “Heavy Metal Drummer”), the boozy sing-along of “(Was I) In Your Dreams,” and the perfect power pop of “Outtasite (Outta Mind)” and “Outta Mind (Outta Sight).” Special attention must be paid to one song though: album closer “Dreamer In My Dreams.” It’s perhaps Wilco’s best closer, and one of their best songs, period. Sounding like the Rolling Stones’ “Country Honk” getting into a bar fight with the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout,” it’s one of the most fun songs in Wilco’s oeuvre. The band clearly had a blast recording it, and the sound Jeff Tweedy shredding his vocal chords gives a great impression of the album as a whole: this is a band leaving everything on the field.

I will admit to two songs on the album that strike me as filler: “Hotel Arizona” and “Someone Else’s Song.” But overall, these two tracks are more than outweighed by the ambition and intelligence on display. As far as songs that would qualify for my top 20, I would put “Dreamer In My Dreams,” “Misunderstood,” and probably “The Lonely 1.”

Which songs qualify for your 20? Have I shifted your opinion at all?

Ben: I can certainly appreciate the lofty mark, even if it falls a little short. I think Wilco finds their sound, assuredness and achieve greatness on their next record.

I absolutely agree “Misunderstood” is an excellent song. Wilco has almost never faltered where Side one, track ones are concerned.I agree the country efforts feel more lived in, but their also less lively for the most part.

Again, I know I didn’t throw a ton of positives its way, but I think Being There is a very solid album, it just also happens to be an album made by a band still finding its footing.

I would take “Misuderstood”, “Red-Eyed and Blue” and “Outta Mind (Outta Sight)” for my 20 song collective.

Comparing this to the three-album peak around the corner, I’m still left a little cold.

There’s a sort of derogatory sports term for the type of player who makes a handful of all-star games, earns fan favorite status, but just isn’t an all-time great–hall of very good.

I think Being There belongs in the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Very Good,

I feel like I’ve more or less talked myself into a full circle. Any closing sentiments for Being There?

Jimi: In all, I think Being Thereis Wilco’s third or fourth best album. It’s not their peak, and they certainly benefited from experience, but for the most part, the essential components of Wilco are there. It legitimized a band that had been written off initially as being far out of their league. This was the beginning of Wilco’s golden age, even if it wasn’t apparent yet. They would start to jettison their country sound and add stranger elements. In a sense, Being There is also the end of Wilco’s first stage. I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to discuss their next album. The amount of growth across the first four albums is awe-inspiring.

Editor’s Note: 2,000 words and only one Beatles comparison. Progress!

Wilcoast to Coast: A.M.

This is the first entry in a series, which  will probably become an exhaustive discussion of every Wilco album ever made. I tabbed my lifelong friend and avid Wilco fan, James “Jimi” Williams, to help me out with this project.

Williams’ knowledge of things such as “the current members of Wilco” and the “past members of Wilco” and experience seeing the band live should be an excellent counterweight to my general opinions, broad statements and passing familiarity with each entry in Wilco’s body of work.

I’m dubbing the dialogue between us Wilcoast to Coast, because I cannot resist a good pun. Or a bad pun.

Anyway, as any family fleeing Nazis can tell you, the beginning is a very good place to start, so without further inane chatter, here’s our inane chatter regarding Wilco’s inauspicious debut, A.M.

Jimi: So, to cut right to the chase, Wilco’s first album, A.M.., is, in my opinion at least, their worst album. Not to say it’s a bad album, per se, but it comes across as a rather undistinguished one. But first a little background: A.M.. was the debut album of Jeff Tweedy’s new band after the breakup of seminal alt-country act Uncle Tupelo. Joining Tweedy were several of the more recent recruits of Uncle Tupelo, while the other founding members (guitarist Jay Farrar and drummer Mike Heidorn) formed Son Volt. Son Volt’s debut, Trace, and A.M.. were recorded around the same time and released within weeks of each other, leading to much of the discussion around the albums to center on their quality in relation to one another. Trace was declared the winner, and looking back, it’s easy to see why. In the context of Uncle Tupelo, Farrar controlled the tone of the band, while Tweedy was more interested in writing pop songs. Trace was the better album simply because Farrar’s vision for the band was more distinctive than Tweedy’s. However, Wilco was bound to win the war for the same reason: Wilco had a more elastic style and focused on writing actual songs.

Ben: I’ve never really been particularly fond of Farrar’s singing. While he predates the genre by a good bit, his voice reminds me of the bro-grunge bands that sprung up in the late ’90s and early ’00s. I don’t want to evoke Chad Kroeger, but it’s not a drastic leap.

Anyway that’s enough Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt talk, I imagine once we tackle Wilco’s oeuvre, we’ll circle back around. Besides, if we’re going to talk about bands with a Wilco connection, I’d prefer to ramble about The Bottle Rockets.

Personally, I like A.M.. I like some songs on it an awful lot.

I’d agree it’s a lesser Wilco album in retrospect, and I’m sure Jeff Tweedy cringes at the affected twang in hindsight, but I really can’t bash it.

Ignoring the band’s future and past, where do you stand on A.M..?

Also, I’d like to point out that when you isolate a McCartney from his Lennon, you’re going to get some “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da’s”

Jimi: I will hear nothing against “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da”.

Regarding A.M.., I think it’s borderline impossible to separate it from what came next. The particularly odious Radiohead comparisons that have dogged the band it’s entire career have never felt truer than they do here: this is Wilco’s Pablo Honey. It’s a solid, if undistinguished, power pop album, with some solid songs and a lot of draggy moments.

What sticks out to you regarding this album?

Ben: I can’t help but feel that if A.M.. was made by a band, which didn’t go on to release some of the aughts’ best regarded albums it’d hold up better.

This album slots in with efforts from bands such as Flying Burrito Brothers, Sturgill Simpson and Jamey Johnson as an extremely self-aware country album with a point of view just outside the genre touchstones that influence it. While Wilco’s early output was labeled alt-country, it’s really just ever-so-slightly to the left of the dial. It’s an alt-country mindset with a straightforward country sound.

What strikes me most about this album is its immediacy. A.M..’s pleasures are all pretty much evident on the first listen. Goofy lovelorn lyrics and big hooks–and make no mistake the hooks are great. It’s definitely a sing along album.

(Unrelated point, but Jeff Tweedy has one of the most approachable voices of all-time. I don’t know if there’s ever been a vocal performance on a Wilco album I wouldn’t at least attempt during drunken karaoke.)

The second thing that I’ve always found interesting about A.M., Is that it’s an incredibly earnest country album, and it’s guitar-pop leanings seem prescient in hindsight. I think a Miranda Lambert cover of “Box Full of Letters” could crack the Top 40 tomorrow.

“Pick up the Change” and “That’s Not the Issue” are the two songs mos emblematic of this album. Both are about dysfunctional relationships, as almost all of A.M.. is, both are stupendously catchy and both are unabashed about their country influence and pop intentions.

“That’s Not the Issue” is a mature Mumford and Sons song with sleepy vocals, and you can since the David Allen Coe nod when Tweedy sings, “I you want to call me darlin’, I don’t mind.”

While Tweedy dropping that g isn’t authentic, it’s pretty clear he authentically wanted to craft a pop-country album, and on that front, I’d call A.M.. a success.

What’s your major takeaway from this album, and do you see hints of the characteristics that define a band you would grow to love?

Jimi: Well, the best thing about this album is Wilco’s affability. No matter how dark they got on future albums, they were never anything short of supremely likable. Even this album is almost impossible to hate; it lacks a strong vision, but the songs themselves provide a nonstop sugar high. The opening salvo of “I Must Be High,” “Casino Queen,” and “Box Full of Letters” are some of the best Big Star rips ever. Even the lesser songs are buoyed by excellent pedal steel work from the legendary Lloyd Maines (Natalie’s father).

For my money, there are two classics on the album though, both unlike any other Wilco song. “Passenger Side” is a self-consciously funny take on riding in a car with a horrible driver. “It’s Just That Simple” is a true rarity in the Wilco catalogue: Jeff Tweedy had no part in writing it and doesn’t sing on the track. Both those honors go to bassist and longest-tenured Wilco member John Stirratt, whose plaintive voice fits the simple country ballad better than Tweedy’s would. Of course, on future albums, Tweedy would take control over the band, but for a brief moment he ceded control to a beloved supporting player. (Note: when I saw Wilco play live, “It’s Just That Simple” was on the set list. The moment came across as a touching gesture of friendship, like when the Beatles let Ringo play one of his songs.)

What songs on here would go on your “Wilco’s Greatest Hits?” Can you see the beginnings of the band that would make Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in this enjoyable piece of fluff?

Ben: Thank you for doing the heavy lifting of being the one with things like “a working knowledge of the members of Wilco”.
I would posit “Passenger Side” was intended to work on a deeper level and be a song about observing oneself being out of control and desiring to change. The narrator is on a bender and uncomfortable, having rendered himself a passive observer to his circumstances. Considering Tweedy’s battles with substance, it could be a feeling he wanted to express in song early, long before he sorted everything out, but maybe I’m giving Tweedy too much credit.

“That’s Not the Issue” would go on my Wilco’s Greatest Hits. It’s ridiculously fun, and it shows Wilco operating in a gear that they really didn’t touch again. I’d say it would also be a good idea to pick one of “Box Full of Letters”, “Casino Queen” or “Pick Up the Change” they’re all catchy alt-country diddies. I can’t really say one is more substantive or important than the others.

On their recent greatest hits release, What’s Your 20?, Wilco included “I Must Be High”, “Box Full of Letters”, “Passenger Side” and “Casino Queen”, which seems indulgent. (Spoiler alert: should we actually cover every Wilco album, I am going to task you with identifying your 20.)

I can definitely hear elements of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Dysfunctional relationships and self-medication are both present, and they’re mainstays of the Wilco songbook. In fact, self-medicating in the face of a dysfunctional relationship is the subject of my two of my favorite Wilco songs, so while hardly fully formed, I can definitely parse out elements of what Wilco would come to be.

It’s not perfect, and it’s hardly Wilco’s most meaningful work but after revisiting it, A.M.. is a better listen than I remembered, and it’s filled with joyous pop pleasures.

What songs would you tab for a greatest hits catalog, and do you have some parting sentiments concerning A.M..?

Jimi: I can see pulling four songs from A.M.. for a greatest hits package, actually. Perhaps more than any other Wilco album, this one begs for a critical rehabilitation the most (give or take a Sky Blue Sky). Unlike, say, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or A Ghost Is Born, this one lives and dies on the strength of its individual songs. It makes sense to pull six or seven of its strongest tracks and recontextualize them. For my money, I would pull three: “Passenger Side,” “It’s Just That Simple,” and “Box Full of Letters.” More than any of the other songs on A.M.., they point to the subtlety and songwriting abilities of the band. Furthermore, I would argue that the album’s “underwhelming” status obscures a strength of the album: Jeff Tweedy’s personal growth. Listening to his contributions on Uncle Tupelo’s classic No Depression, Tweedy’s songs (especially “Train”) try to fit in with Farrar’s vision rather than find their own voice. His singing is closer to a high schooler’s adenoidal whine than the Neil Young-style croon he adopts here (side note: listening to Young’s “Walk On” from On the Beach is essential for anyone looking for the roots of Wilco’s music).

Any last thoughts on A.M..?

Ben: “Train” is my favorite song on No Depression, and I think it’s telling that the same personnel minus Farrar, did not produce a single song approaching the raucous energy or straight ahead rock of “Train”. I would say it’s a deliberate choice, not a shortcoming.
Although, at the time,  A.M.. was seen as the other album from the other guy from Uncle Tupelo in hindsight, it was clearly a step toward a new identity and style. Ultimately, I think this album fares better if it’s viewed outside Wilco’s narrative arc, because I think it deserves to be regarded as a fun if occasionally forgettable collection of pop songs as opposed the glorified growing pain.

Even when viewed within Wilco’s developmental arc, I think A.M.. deserves more respect. It’s essential as an indicator of and catalyst for growth,

Without the disconnect between principle songwriter, Tweedy, and his audience, it’s tough to believe Wilco would have worked on a sprawling 19-song double album about listeners’ relationships with music.

I believe that thought should segue us smoothly toward Wilco’s next release.

 (Editor’s Note: I cannot believe with spent 1,700 or so words discussing Wilco, we only slipped in two hyperbolic Beatles references)

A deep cut from Wilco

Before they were the American Radiohead or supposedly Dad Rock cliches Wilco were an alternative country band. Their debut album “A.M.” even allowed Wilco the opportunity to dip their toes into the waters of the Bluegrass swimmin’ hole.

The track is all frolicking strings and wistful lyrics. Although Jeff Tweedy never tries any high, lonesome pining, and instead opts for a modern take on the fatal maladies affecting a modern relationship “That’s Not the Issue” is an unmistakably Bluegrass-inspired song. 

It’s also one of the highlights of an important band’s first album.