By MARK GUARINO
Daily Herald Music Critic
Today is Christmas for fans of Wilco, the Chicago-based group that has emerged as the nation’s most adventuresome pop band.
In a stroke of marketing savvy, three record labels are piggybacking each other by releasing their Wilco products the same day. There’s a solo debut from the band’s departed multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett and a film soundtrack featuring solo instrumentals from frontman Jeff Tweedy.
But at the forefront is the band’s fourth album, the highly anticipated “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” (Nonesuch). Chances are you already know these songs by heart. Since the fall, the album has been one of the Internet’s hottest downloads, thanks to copies sneaked online after the band was unceremoniously dropped from its original label, Reprise. A division of AOL Time Warner, Reprise called the album a commercial liability.
Talk about a glass half full. Being bounced meant an avalanche of David vs. Goliath press, whetting the appetite for the album’s eventual release – strangely, on Nonesuch, another division of AOL Time Warner.
“They did, in effect, pay for the record twice,” Tweedy said Sunday to the New York Times.
Even so, the suits got a deal. “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” is worth much more. Although Wilco’s last album, “Summerteeth” (Reprise), caught fans off guard with its circus-sounding noise art, “YHF” puts the electronic haze behind the songs, not front and center. It’s the equivalent of a lush garden blooming inside a junked garage.
Nailing it home are Tweedy’s lyrics, which are his most intimate. His flat but resonant voice could be the Midwestern farmers in Grant Wood’s paintings or the stoned numb urbanites in Edward Hopper’s. The songs start at an emotional zero – “you have to die/if you want to be alive” he sings – and climb upward, searching for meaning.
Along the way are some joyous stops. As new drummer Gelenn Kotche and longtime bassist John Stirratt construct a wobbly spine to complement Tweedy’s song anxieties, some of the band’s strangest melodies burst through.
“Heavy Metal Drummer” is rootsy summer pop with glitterball synthesized breaks and “Jesus, etc.” is buoyed by exhaling strings. Barroom pianos, acoustic guitars and boozy horns keep these songs rooted and accessible.
Appropriately, the albums title is an old short-wave code for help, a cry that languishes throughout “YHF.” But by the end, Tweedy is found singing, “I’ve got reservations about so many things/but not about you” in front of a backdrop of dissonant techno thunder. It might have taken a journey to get this album to stores, but, like the best albums, that’s not nearly as involved as the journey this album dares you to take.
“Wilco lead guitarist Jay Bennett co-produced and helped write “YHF” but split once it was finished. That caused a juicy rift for fans to debate, which is bound to bubble over with today’s simultaneous release of his solo debut, “The Palace at 4 a.m. (Part I)” (Undertow).
If “YHF” captures the anarchist sprawl of the Beatles’ “White Album,” Bennett is aiming for the meticulous popcraft of “Revolver.” Both come out winners.
The album, in collaboration with Champaign-based Edward Burch, can’t help but set the record straight about Bennett’s weighty contribution to his old band, Taking the phrase “multi-instrumentalist” to heart, he’s woven together a crazy quilt of sounds, effortlessly packing in a parade of instruments without breaking the illusion that it’s just a simple three-minute pop tune.
Some songs like “Puzzle Heart” could have easily been off an older Wilco record, but here, Bennett’s husky singing gives them the heartworn intimacy of Leonard Cohen.
Supported by Stirratt and ex-Wilco mates Ken Coomer and Max Johnston and others, Bennett and Burch go for the vintage pop grandiosity of Burt Bacharach without creating the feeling that it’s simply an exercise in revisionism. They playfully recast the old Wilco lullaby “My Darlin'” into a gentle, psychedelic mind bender, an electric sitar twinkling like nighttime stars.
Round out the store shelves is “Chelsea Walls” (Rykodisc), the soundtrack to a forthcoming film by first-time director Ethan Hawke. Only Wilco diehards will appreciate Tweedy and Kotche’s spooky minimalist soundscapes.
But beware of the cringe factor when Broadway actor Sean Leonard cops Bohemian weariness when singing Wilco’s “The Lonely 1.” Someone page William Shatner.