WILCO, MERCURY REV
Moore Theatre, 443-1744, $23-$25 8 p.m. Wed., Nov. 28
YOU WANT a snapshot of the popular music industry in 2001? The most intriguing view isn't in Britney and her dozens of marketing deals, it's not in Dre's minimalist production for Eve and Mary J., in Eminem's controversies, or in System of a Down's mental metal. You'll find it in Wilco.
Yup, Wilco: the band who've never had a gold or platinum record, who've spent the past five years trying to demolish their standing as an alt-country act, and who—technically—haven't released an album since 1999. The same Wilco who have spent the past year defining what it means to be an adventurous rock band today. Who, because of that, rumbled with Goliath in the guise of a record label. And who created the best album of 2001 in Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, though now it won't be released until 2002. Maybe you've already heard it; a key player in Wilco's adventure, after all, is their die-hard fan base.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
First, the album, much of which the band will play during their stop at the Moore. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is an incredible tapestry of impressionist lyrics and seemingly stumbled-upon sounds. While the excellent Summerteeth (1999) cast Wilco's lot with pop studio masters of yore, the new album reveals singer/songwriter/ guitarist Jeff Tweedy and his cohorts stretching well beyond tradition's line of scrimmage into Sonic Youth territory. Noise, dissonance, odd tones, chimes, and off-kilter notes are spliced into the songcraft.
Loss runs through the album like a stream cutting its way from song to song: loss of relationships, of confidence, of innocence. Though much of the work appears amorphous at the start, linear stories emerge. "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" opens the set with a disoriented coupling: "I am an American aquarium drinker/I assassin down the avenue." But hiding behind the unusual words are purposeful structures. The track gradually reveals a drunk lost lover, trying to rationalize a breakup. "What was I thinking when I let go of you?" he asks at the end of the first verse, which mutates into, "What was I thinking when you said hello?" and then, "What was I thinking when I let you back in?"
"I write a lot of words and a lot of lyrics, but sometimes I'm just trying to get a grip on some kind of continuity or some kind of theme to work off of for a whole record," Tweedy said last spring before performing many of the new songs in a solo acoustic set at the Crocodile. He's currently declining interviews until the album is officially released.
"I'll want to stick with one set of lyrics for a while, even if I end up changing 'em. Maybe it's not even the lyrics, it's like a certain meter or rhyming pattern feels exciting to me, so I want to try and explore the different ways that could be layered over a song. They're really malleable. That's when you really think of lyrics as something distinctly different from the song."
Wilco approach detail with the thoughtful precision of a brain surgeon. On the bridge in "Kamera," deft new drummer Glenn Kotche swaps his warm stickwork for punchy electronic beats. It's hardly noticeable to the ear, but the tack subtly propels the song forward the instant it needs a boost. Though Tweedy describes his lyrics as malleable, they're hardly tossed off. In the same song, the singer confesses his dishonesty without renouncing it in a brilliantly concise lyric: "Tonight I'm deciding/Which lies I've been hiding." The album's overall emotional tenor is equally important. When the energetically sentimental "Heavy Metal Drummer" kicks in on the heels of the searching "Ashes of American Flags," the transition mirrors the death-to-life mood shift halfway through the Beatles' "A Day in the Life."
This is the album that Reprise Records, according to The Chicago Tribune, thought was too experimental to release. For those who watch the industry, that's saying something. Founded by Frank Sinatra, Reprise has been home to Neil Young and Alanis Morissette. It's part of the Warner Bros. family that's maintained an artistic reputation by signing R.E.M., Flaming Lips, and Built to Spill. That Reprise would dump a disc like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot—and Wilco, who sold hundreds of thousands of records for the label even though they weren't chart toppers—is the clearest evidence to date that the major popular music industry is retreating from anything it perceives as risky.
The good news is that the band bought back the rights to the recordings. Now they're talking to several dozen labels about releasing it. Some of them, like Warner, are Goliaths; some aren't.
But again, that's getting ahead of the story.
Soon after Wilco turned in Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to executives last summer, MP3s of the album's songs leaked. Fans went berserk, downloading copies, burning CDs, passing it on to friends. At first their manager—who had a history of supporting live tape and CD trading—implored fans to stop, apparently fearing widespread prerelease distribution would hurt the band's talks with new labels. Eventually, those pleas stopped. And Wilco ended up streaming Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, in its entirety, from its own Web site, wilcoworld.net.
Again, it's indicative of what's going on throughout the industry. Reprise and Warner Bros., who had long fought downloads of any kind, are now players in MusicNet, the consortium that plans to sell subscriptions to a streaming music service. They would do better not to bother. Give away high-quality music, as Wilco ultimately did, and many folks predict that the fans will buy the CDs. Surely Yankee Hotel Foxtrot will sell at least as well as the band's three previous albums.
For now, the band is touring the West Coast and expecting an official release in the not-too-distant future. They've weathered a tough year, but one can only believe it was for the better. Watch them—everyone from other artists and managers to labels to fans certainly will.