Top Five Wilco Albums
Every music geek likes to think that he has discovered a band. Every music geek has had a secret love affair with a band. Every music geek, at one time or another, devotes himself to his personal “discovery,” courting it, and watching over it like an over-protective jealous lover, making sure that his partner stays on the straight and narrow.
I’d like to think that Wilco has been that band for me, but in all honesty I didn’t come around until Summerteeth, their third studio album. Still, it was a couple of years before their groundbreaking record Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which established them as alternative darlings.
Anyway, I like to mislead myself into thinking that I was the first music geek to have recognized their brilliance. So please, let me go on thinking that I have my fingers on the pulse of the music scene. This is a music blog, for Pete’s sake.
Here are Riffraf’s top five Wilco albums.
Album: The Whole Love
Highlights: Art of Almost, I Might, Dawned on Me, Born Alone, One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)
After two mediocre albums, Wilco returned to top form. The versatility of The Whole Love could only be executed by the consistent line-up that Jeff Tweedy had assembled and not a bunch of hired guns. Mikael Jorgensen’s keyboards offer doses of playful nuance throughout the record; guitarist Nels Cline is the genius, mad scientist; multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone fills in all the musical holes; bassist John Stirratt and drummer Glenn Kotche lay down a deep and satisfying foundation, while Mr. Tweedy’s songwriting is consistently top notch. As a whole, The Whole Love may not be Wilco’s shining moment, but a few tracks—“Art of Almost” and “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)”—remind us that Wilco is, without a doubt, one of the greatest bands of all time.
Album: A Ghost is Born
Highlights: At Least That’s What You Said, Spiders (Kidsmoke), Handshake Drugs, Theologians
With the absence of Jay Bennett, Jeff Tweedy took on lead guitar duties. It was the first and only time in which Mr. Tweedy was the lead guitarist on a Wilco record. Maybe that’s why so many songs have lengthy guitar solos that end in a flurry of sonic distortion. In his June 2004 review in Pitchfork, Rob Mitchum is critical of Mr. Tweedy’s self-indulgent guitar work: “For an artist as lyrically and vocally gifted as Tweedy to resort to expressing emotions through age-old bombast and pyrotechnics, something must be gumming up the songwriting works.”
The truth is A Ghost is Born is an erratic album, and that’s precisely what I love about it. Big deal . . . it lacks cohesion. Its unevenness is most likely the result of Jeff Tweedy’s addiction to painkillers. When A Ghost is Born was completed, Tweedy entered a rehab clinic, delaying the record’s release by two weeks. You don’t write an authentic song like “Handshake Drugs” unless you’ve experienced it firsthand.
Not that awards mean anything; however, A Ghost Is Born became Wilco’s first top ten album in the U.S. and also earned them a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album.
Album: Being There
Highlights: misunderstood, outtasight (outta mind), i got you (at the end of the century), sunken treasure
Wilco’s double disc, sophomore effort is a giant leap forward both musically and lyrically. It’s an eclectic collection of songs written by an ambitious songwriter and performed by an equally ambitious group.
The self-produced album features more psychedelic and introspective writing than their debut, A.M., which is replete with alternative country tunes. 1996 was a stressful time for the group’s leader, Jeff Tweedy; he had recently quit smoking pot, and he was trying to juggle marriage, a mortgage, and the birth of his first child. Furthermore, Wilco’s popularity had been dipping. Tweedy discussed his trials and tribulations:
I was a later bloomer. I was in my thirties before I even came to terms with the idea that I was making a living as a recording artist. I was in a punk band for a long time and thought it was my life. I was a bass player in a band making fifty dollars a night, paying eighty dollars a month in rent, making indie records and not getting paid for them, and having this naïve sense of well-being that I would always do this and never have much more responsibility than that. I went from that to being a dad and a major-label recording artist who had the pressure of supporting a family and also making something I felt good about artistically.
Up until Being There, Jeff Tweedy had been competing and trailing his former partner from Uncle Tupelo, Jay Farrar and his new band Son Volt. With recently hired multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett, Tweedy would find a new musical companion, his Paul McCartney or Keith Richards (if you will). The duo would collaborate on two of Wilco’s most celebrated albums—Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot—before parting ways.
Highlights: She’s a Jar, A Shot in the Arm, I’m Always in Love, Via Chicago, ELT
On Summerteeth, Jeff Tweedy’s influences—twentieth century literature, particularly the works of Henry Miller, William H. Gass and John Fante, as well as his marital problems—are quite apparent. It was an emotional time for the songwriter who missed his wife and son because of the band’s demanding tour schedule.
Tweedy wanted to be a better songwriter and had been taking steps to improve his craft:
I definitely wanted to get better at writing, and those things happened simultaneously with trying to read better. I would write tons of stuff in my head, and forget. Some songs on Being There, I don’t think I ever wrote any lyrics down….To fight that, I started writing words on paper and making up melodies to go with them. By writing things down, and putting more words into my head, it put more words in my mouth when I turned on the tape recorder to sing.
While Tweedy might have felt alienated from his family, he and Jay Bennett’s heavy-handed production style alienated the other members of the band. Unlike Being There, which was performed live in the studio, the duo overdubbed many of the songs with Pro Tools, resulting in diminished contributions from bassist John Stirratt and drummer Ken Coomer. In fact, Jay Bennett even played bass and drums when Stirratt and Coomer were not present. Needless to say, Coomer was disappointed about his reduced role:
It was a circling of the wagons, and John and I felt left out. It was Jeff and Jay feeding off each other not just musically, but other vices. There was a bonding going on, and it didn’t just involve music. Jeff didn’t go into rehab [for an addiction to painkillers], but he should’ve, [sic] in my opinion. Jay was taking painkillers, antidepressants, and wasn’t in much better shape. The band was different. There wasn’t really a band, just two guys losing their minds in the studio.
Tweedy and Bennett might very well have “lost their minds in the studio,” but the completed work is a stroke of brilliance and a foreshadowing of the genius to come on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
Album: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
Highlights: I am trying to break your heart, Kamera, War on war, Jesus etc., Heavy metal drummer, I’m the man who loves you
The opening line to the opening track “I am Trying to Break Your Heart”—“I am an American aquarium drinker / I assassin down the avenue”—changed my view of lyric writing. A noun being used as a verb? Huh! Since then, I have placed Tweedy in the same class as Dylan, Reed, Waits, Smith and Cohen.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is on many lists of greatest albums of the 2000s. Rolling Stone, Pitchfork and Paste all regard it as the band’s magnum opus. What’s even more miraculous than the music is that the band was even capable of delivering a record in the first place.
Filmmaker Sam Jones began shooting his documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, about the creation of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, on the day that drummer Ken Coomer was fired. Shortly after Coomer’s dismissal, drummer Glenn Kotche was hired just when things began to heat up between the band’s two creative forces: Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett.
Bennett recorded the entire album, but failed to mix a few of the songs. Tweedy and Bennett argued over the transition between “Ashes of American Flags” and “Heavy Metal Drummer.” Tweedy invited Jim O’Rourke to mix “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” and the results impressed the band, so O’Rourke was asked to mix the rest of the album. Consequently, Jay Bennett was dismissed.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was completed in September 2001, but Reprise (a subsidiary of the Warner Music Group label) refused to release it, so Wilco acquired the rights to the album and streamed it for free on their website. In November 2001, Wilco signed with Nonesuch (another subsidiary of the Warner Music Group label). It was eventually released on April 23, 2002 and has been certified Gold, having sold over 590,000 copies.
How’s that for irony?