“Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” and Questions of Avant-Garde

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Though it may be surprising to find ourselves realizing that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the 2002 offering from Chicago-based Americana heroes Wilco, has already turned ten years old, it shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that, after ten years, we are still reflecting on, raving about, arguing over and debating the album, its surrounding controversy and its place in the western music pantheon. The Story, as it is now known to practically everyone who fancies himself a conscientious member of the music obsessed in this day and age, isn’t worth retreading after a decade that has looked so deeply retroactive at the five or so Midwestern men that unassumingly holed themselves up in a loft in the Fall of 2000, save to say that the seminal album they reemerged with a year later marks a musical flashpoint in a tumultuous vacuum of American History, of which the destruction of the Twin Towers, the crumbling of the major music industry, the global financial crisis and the rise of the Internet are each an intertwined part.

The fascinating road over which Yankee Hotel Foxtrot‘s lore has traversed in the years since its release leads, almost inevitably, to a conclusion that it is one of the most important works of the aughts. You’ll routinely hear it mentioned by both critics and audiences alike as being such, and one cursory listen will indicate why that is the case. The question at this point, really, isn’t whether YHF is one of the all-time greats, but why. In short, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is arguably one of the best albums ever conceived because it is the singular representative piece of avant-garde art of its decade, a statement that undoubtedly poses more questions than answers since – Good God – what does that even mean?

Earlier this year I had a completely unrelated conversation with my younger brother Ryan, a guitarist, wherein he, when asked what his next project will sound like, told me, “It’ll be some experimental stuff with an indie rock feel.” When I later had opportunity to sample some of his new project, what I actually heard was something vastly different – at least in my mind – from what he’d described. In particular, there was no genuine experimentalism to be found. Unsurprisingly, what I witnessed was the Subjectivism we both apply to the definition of “experimental”: Where I was looking for something about the writing and recording process untried, untested or “out-of-the-box”, Ryan was (maybe unconsciously) referencing something more akin to the music of Explosions in the Sky, a band that, though at one time made music generally regarded as “experimental”, the emulation of whom in the year 2012 could hardly be considered an experiment.

Later this year I had a vastly more related conversation with my co-editor, Matt, in writing a live review of Cass McCombs, a chameleonic musician who I suppose could be likened to folk, or rock, or alt country, though none of those terms describes him with any real accuracy. Nevertheless, the crux of the article was that McCombs, using the traditional instrumentation of alt country – guitar, bass, piece-pared drums, pedal steel and a little assortment of keys – seems to push the boundaries to a certain extent of what it means to be alt country, without crossing out of or transgressing from the traditional paradigm of the genre. Naturally, the review was terrible because it was ill-executed on the faulty premise that Cass McCombs is even an alt country musician to begin with.

In the course of the article though, I passed an almost obligatory reference to Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, wherein I hinted at – though not outright declared – the fact that no one had successfully made an avant-garde alt country record. Matt, a Chicago native and Wilco fanatic himself, said, “I happen to think that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is avant-garde”, which I disagreed with.  He proffered the fact that YHF is generally regarded as an avant-garde record, which I said I understood but still disagreed with.

Though something of a philosophical (and probably very subjective) standstill it was, neither of us had a great reason for either opinion:

Matt: “Listen to the intro of ‘Poor Places’. Listen to all the subtle miscellaneous undertones in ‘War on War’. I think of that as deconstructionism, which I think makes the record avant-garde.”

Taylor: “It just doesn’t sit well with me. I think of that as a creative apex, which I guess could be avant-garde if the genre itself had no integrity beforehand.”

Of course, we were both wrong, though at the time neither of us would have understood why because we were also both right, just for the wrong reasons.

When placed in the company of every Wilco record (and Uncle Tupelo record, for that matter) up to 2002, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is no doubt the odd disc out. Compared to the standard fare sheen of A.M. and Being There, or the rather more produced gloss of Summerteeth, YHF‘s bare Tweedy vocals à la Loose Fur, subtly metered instrumental virtuosity and soft tinny textures presented a marked shifted from the Wilco trajectory, if not an unequivocal jump into a new genre altogether. In fact, it was literally just that: a band of alt country veterans had decided to end the 1990s by trying its hand in the arena of bona fide alternative rock.

The general belief in YHF‘s avant-gardism can most likely be traced back to Sam Jones’ documentary film I’m Trying To Break Your Heart, a chronicle in which Wilco can be seen to take the writing and recording process of the record very seriously while band members indelicately talk about its differences from their past work. We see Jay Bennett toying with a deluge of different instruments and little gadgets he either purchased or created, the sounds of which find themselves embedded in tracks like “Poor Places”, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” and “Ashes of American Flags” – subjectively, what some might call experimentation. We’re given a tortured glimpse into Jeff Tweedy’s incapacitating migraines. We also see Tweedy become the self-decided auteur of the record in spite of Bennett’s co-writer status on the great majority of the songs, and we’re shown the artistic and personal relationships between the two disintegrate as a result.

Do the somewhat superficial sonic details of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot arrive at something akin to avant-gardism, as it is generally regarded? It’s ridiculous to suggest that no one in the history of rock and roll had ever laid abstract noise over a standard rock song before Wilco, and simply doing so in the early 2000s can’t be considered avant-garde on its face. By my standards, it isn’t even experimental. Whereas I think the modern, pseudo-intellectual perception of avant-gardism involves an artist merely playing around with something apparently new to him or to his narrow audience, a traditional reading of the definition at least contemplates a decided experimentation that results in a legitimate pushing of customary boundaries. Even if the members of Wilco were decidedly experimental in their approach to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, it’d be hard to make the argument that the record pushed any sonic boundaries. After all, any band – before or after that record – that writes in the vein of alt country sounds ostensibly like Wilco. Musicians might find themselves inspired by Wilco, but in no way would it cause this record to rise to a level above a standard rock album in the way that punk bands of the seventies were inspired by the Stooges’ Raw Power. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot may simply be a really good rock album, even one of the best rock albums of the decade, but simply adding abstractions to an otherwise well-established broth in an overly serious or mature fashion does not on its face avant-garde something make.

It’s by this measure that I Am Trying To Break Your Heart is either a deft or clueless piece of audience misdirection. While it invites us to witness the purported experimental leanings of the band in the studio crafting what would become their crowning achievement, true avant-garde exists in the subtext of Wilco’s relations with Reprise Records and the stupefying new way in which that relationship yielded the record’s universal acclaim and success. Of course, Reprise shelved the record and dropped the band upon hearing it, it would seem because of the tone-deafness of the existing major label establishment embodied in David Kahne (probably most famous nowadays for producing some really popular bands’ more mediocre work including Sublime’s Sublime, Sugar Ray’s 14:59 and the Strokes’ First Impressions of Earth). However, that detail operates more as a thrilling rock and roll anecdote, containing nearly as much second-hand embellishment as my spontaneous contention that the death of Brainiac lead singer Tim Taylor in 1997 is the only reason Jim O’Rourke and Jeff Tweedy ever crossed paths.

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  • jwwjr

    Nice to see someone simultaneously knocking YHF off its pedestal a little bit while not discounting Jay Bennett’s huge role in the record. Disagree with yr Brainiac comment, though. Jim O’Rourke came through St. Louis frequently throughout the ’90s (Cicero’s Basement Bar was a standard stop on punk/indie/avant tours from Chicago etc., folks getting through the midwest, I think he may even have a track on the “goodbye to Cicero’s” comp. CD put together by Jim Utz of Vintage Vinyl). Jeff “produced” an early Dazzling Killmen 7″, and was friends with Darin through working at various record stores, not the least of which was the Vintage Vinyl in Granite City just across the river from STL, which Darin managed into the ‘oughts. Darin and Jim were close via Skingraft and general anti-music/noise/freerock stuffs crosspollinating twixt STL and CHI. Also Jeff’s lady was booking the Lounge Ax in CHI, which became for awhile the CHI hub for indie stuffs.