Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
Never mind the buzz, the secret's in the grooves.
Forget Yankee Hotel Foxtrot's back story: the whole bit about Wilco getting dropped from their label because they made an uncompromising album with no single; the band's subsequent decision to distribute the music free online; their ultimate victory in getting the same conglomerate that booted them to release the disc anyway. Intriguing as that tale is, it's not what makes this such a spellbinding album. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a masterwork because it wraps waves of doubt and resolve in surprising musical textures built on alluring melodies. It's a superior disc because, given the chance, it'll turn you into the wandering drunk of "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart." Just as that guy continually re-evaluates his feelings for a lost love, the details on this album—the atmospheric breeze in "Ashes of American Flags," say, or the anticipatory snare pause before the verses of "Heavy Metal Drummer," or the steel drums tucked into "War on War"—call you to listen to these songs with new ears, to look at them from shifting perspectives. One reason for the record's breathtaking sonic scope is that Glenn Kotche is more than an inventive drummer; he's an entire barn full of sound, a player who can keep the beat on his kit and nail the melody on xylophone simultaneously. That's just one reason why Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is top-notch rock 'n' roll; there are many others. But, hey, go find them yourself—they're all right there in the grooves. Chris Nelson
Girls Get Busy
Femme-punk icons' second coming still doesn't suck.
When Le Tigre treated a squashed Showbox crowd to the feminist name-check anthem "Hot Topic" in March, Bratmobile got visual aid props right alongside Gertrude Stein and Nina Simone. After a sustained mid-'90s separation, the women of Bratmobile pulled a Sunny Day Real Estate in 1998, reconvening to discover more acclaim and adoration than ever. Girls Get Busy should in no way inhibit the good vibes around the revival. Why does the Brat's spitfire approach fail to stale? Vocalist Allison Wolfe heaves many a Molotov spiked with unpredictable progressive vitriol into the Beauty & the Beat-modeled pop-punk vehicles. Her snarl is shrink-wrapped in ennui—guitarist Erin Smith and drummer Molly Neuman drop accompaniment both street tough and deceptively simple—but Wolfe's hot topics are completely from the heart. Snotty good humor abounds in opening salvos "I'm in the Band" and "Shop for America," but the real issues at hand—female empowerment and post-Sept. 11 nationalism, respectively—are dissected with brains and brawn. The sample-bolstered "Are You a Lady?" doesn't swim into double entendre utopia, ࠬa Le Tigre's tranny shout outs (the track is quite literal), but Bratmobile are proof that simplicity can be quite the effective scalpel. Andrew Bonazelli
Life and Death of an American Fourtracker
Back-to-back concept-album winners for S.F. audiophile.
John Vanderslice's second consecutive concept album is a dangerously beautiful thing. Like 2001's Antarctic mind game, Time Travel Is Lonely, Life and Death of an American Fourtracker deals with similar themes of isolation and creeping self- destruction. At times sparse and lonely and at times lushly orchestral, Fourtracker is reminiscent of Jeremy Enigk's Return of the Frog Queen. However, Fourtracker's production and general grandiosity isn't cloying; rather, its component songs stand alone admirably. A loose chronicle of the minor victories and major setbacks of a chemically imbalanced four-track recording junkie, Vanderslice's latest is brimming with aural and verbal poetry. His plaintive vocals symbiotically coexist with strings, horns, and all manner of electronic flotsam and jetsam. Although it traces a fictional narrative, the album is actually a form of autobiography, hinting at Vanderslice's love of all things related to the engineering of music. Vanderslice owns and operates San Francisco's Tiny Telephone recording studio as well as its MP3 hub. Though aided by members of Spoon, Beulah, Creeper Lagoon, and Death Cab for Cutie, continued listening provides a picture of obsessed individual vision: Vanderslice in the studio allowing his talents to ambitiously roam. The result is a brilliantly internal rock opera. Peter Sennhauser
DANIELLE HOWLE AND THE TANTRUMS
A few pretty melodies can't keep this Southern songstress on the road.
Listening to "Could Be Here" and "Sneaky A.M.," the gorgeous opening cuts of Skorborealis, singer/songwriter Danielle Howle's third album with her backing band the Tantrums, is like riding shotgun in your farm cousin's antique pickup. Everything on these two tracks feels well loved and resonant: The percussion instruments purr like an unfailing engine, guitar solos roll by like yellow fields of wheat, and Howle's husky voice rushes in through the broken side window, insistent, world-weary, and concerned only with making its presence felt. Unfortunately, like any old piece of machinery, Skorborealis quickly goes haywire after these two brief moments of bliss. Howle's attempts at humor on tracks like "Karaoke," and "Camaro Power" act like potholes in an otherwise smooth highway and disrupt the gentle, lulling rhythm. Rockers like "Down" seem to explode in Howle's face, leaving her stranded in ugly stereotypes and pseudo-metal guitar licks. While Howle can be commended for exploring alternate genres and disparate moods, it's hard to watch her veer away so wildly from the artistic forms at which she excels. The accelerator seems to stick beneath her foot and the brakes let go in a sigh of discontent, and Skorborealis drives itself right into the ditch. Tizzy Asher
Danielle Howle and the Tantrums play the Crocodile at 9 p.m. Wed., May 22. $8.