Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Deeper In: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot -- Familiarization

Oddly enough, the first YHF (and, indeed, Wilco) song I heard was the album's closer, "Reservations". It was the result of little more than a P2P music search in my freshman dorm room. I was embroiled in a Ryan Adams obsession, which served as something of a gateway to my eventual immersion in indie, Americana, alt-this and that, and whatever else my tastes have grown to encompass. Whilst reading up on Ryan, I'd repeatedly see his name in the company of other alternative country mainstays like the Jayhawks, Son Volt, and Wilco. The latter was especially ubiquitous, as this was only a year after YHF's release, so the band was still cresting critically.

So anyway, I downloaded "Reservations" at random from a list of search results. I'll always remember that first listen, hearing Jeff Tweedy's wounded coos amidst the breathy ambiance, thinking, "This guy's voice is exactly what I hear in my head when I think of alt-country music." Suffice to say, YHF ain't exactly alt-country. But there's something about Tweedy's unpretentious, everyman delivery that's so important to the Wilco aesthetic. It also immaculately complements Yankee Hotel Foxtrot's message, but I'll get to that.

In usual idiotic fashion, I didn't pursue the band until some months later. I guess I was still in the final throes of freshman-year douchebaggery: blasting Zeppelin from my dorm room, learning Dave Matthews songs on guitar, bitching about Columbia ad nauseam. It wasn't til my return to Columbia, post-summer of 2004, that I decided to download the entirety of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. By that time it was already being canonized by most critics and fans, so I felt somewhat obligated to give it a go.

As a neophyte to musical subtlety at this point, it would take more than casual absorption for a full appreciation of the album. But due to a pair of seemingly unrelated factors, I became inured to the album's eccentricities over the next few months. The factors are as follows:
  1. The summer prior to downloading YHF, I'd inherited my mother's old '95 Jeep Cherokee. It had a 10-CD changer, a feature I initially celebrated. However, it soon became evident that due to its location in the rear of the vehicle, changing discs was a laborious task, one that I'd undertake roughly once a month.
  2. That semester--this is fall of 2004--I took a job at a small newspaper in Blythewood, about 20 miles outside of Columbia. This meant a round trip of about 40-50 minutes daily, depending on traffic.
You've already done the math, but I'll flesh it out: Over the course of the semester, I rarely touched that disc changer. Therefore, those albums that were in rotation generally stayed in it. And, wouldn't you know it, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was one of them. For several months, I'd drive the span of I-77 to the strains of bizarre keyboards and murky feedback, usually nonplussed and wondering what the hell was coming out of my speakers. But the album slowly came into focus. I still wasn't sure why there was a robotic woman repeating "yankee, hotel, foxtrot", or why Jeff Tweedy didn't believe in touchdowns. But something about the words and sounds seemed knowing and genuine.

Despite my immersion, I'd say I was still intrigued by rather than sold on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. I'd approached it scientifically, I guess, since it was not only an introduction to Wilco, but indeed to a genre (Prog-Indie-Alt-Americana or some such shit.) I was reluctant to down the Wilco Kool-Aid just yet. That winter, I'd scoop up the recently-dropped A Ghost Is Born, as well as A.M., Being There, and Summerteeth (I became hopelessly obsessed with the latter for several months.) But it wasn't until that February, in Charlotte, when the cathartic, swirling finale of "Poor Places" was pouring over my face like raging flames, that I understood what Wilco was all about. This was a watershed moment, people. So from there my Wilco obsession took wing, and after six (and counting!) live shows, two times meeting Tweedy, a slew of posters and shirts and longwinded blog posts, here we are.

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