Three Great Albums Fade in Reflection

Despite their canonical status, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Oracular Spectacular, and White Blood Cells lack the staying power of truly great albums.

WilcoYankee Hotel Foxtrot

Back in the waning, glorious final days of Uncle Tupelo, I stood a few feet from the stage at all four of the band’s last-ever concerts—two at the Blue Note in Columbia, MO, and two at Mississippi Nights in St. Louis on the Landing (may it rest in peace) in the summer. Well, spring, actually: it was April-May 1994.

I was always a Jay guy. I remember our Tupelo-obsessed group was divided fairly evenly on this point. By the end of the Anodyne tour, Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy were taking turns singing their own songs, clearly only tolerating each other, and my friends engaged in spirited Lennon vs. McCartney-style debates over who the real MVP of Uncle Tupelo was. Half of my friends preferred Jeff, who would step up with his bass guitar and sing “Gun” or “We’ve Been Had” or “The Long Cut” in his childlike rasp. But I always stared at Jay and preferred his songs and considered him the coolest one, the heart, soul, and sound of Uncle Tupelo, even after Jeff had wrestled control of half of Tupelo’s singing and songwriting.

So when Son Volt’s Trace was so much better than Wilco’s A.M., those of us on Team Jay felt vindicated. “See, I told you so,” I thought: Jay was the man all along. “Sounds like 1963/ but for now it sounds like heaven” vs. “You’re gonna make me spill my beer/If you don’t learn how to steer.” Needless to say, I couldn’t envision that eight years later Jay would be grinding out another set of drowsy melodies on the solo effort Sebastapol, a record met with lukewarm reviews and poor sales, while Wilco unleashed Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, an album that would attract a mountain of press, sell half-a-million copies in the U.S., top the 2002 Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll, and, according to Rolling Stone, be the 493rd Greatest Album of All Time.

I’m not ready to admit that any lingering loyalty to Jay was the reason for my nagging suspicion in 2002 that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was overrated. I embraced the album, of course—how could I not?—and thought it was a fine record and that it contained some peak tunes that still stand among Wilco’s best, such as “Jesus, Etc.”, “War on War”, “I’m the Man Who Loves You”, and others. But my enthusiasm was nowhere near that of the majority of critics.

The fact that the album was met with such exorbitant critical and new-fan pants-wetting is what, in part, tempered my enthusiasm. But mostly, I just thought some of the songs were average— dull melodies and found-poem lyrics dressed up with Pro-Tooled clatters and whirrs. For instance, I love the hometown nostalgia of “Heavy Metal Drummer”—the Landing, Kiss covers, double kick-drums, getting stoned—but beyond that, it’s a pretty rinky-dink little song. Plus, so much studio fiddling left the record sounding oddly antiseptic, tinkered with until a metallic sheen covered the whole thing and dulled its emotional impact for me.

Those are the reasons that I didn’t think the album was the transcendent, history-of-pop-music-altering event so many others seemed to. But if one were to theoretically accept my argument that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is (or was) overrated, how did the album come to be so excessively vaunted in the first place?

One reason is that rock fans were captivated by the label drama that surrounded the album. When asshat executives at Reprise, which is owned by Warner Music Group, rejected the album as too uncommercial and Tweedy refused to alter it, the episode became an emblem of everything wrong with record labels and everything right with Tweedy’s artistic integrity. Then, when the band was able to sell the same album to Nonesuch, another Warner subsidiary, essentially forcing Warner to pay for the same album twice, Wilco became sly heroes of rock-biz defiance, and indie-rock fans were ready to love the album on principle alone. (Not that Wilco ended up sticking it to the label exactly; the album was a commercial winner, so it made plenty of money for Warner after all.)

The other reason it took off is a matter of timing and trajectory. The leaps-and-bounds growth from A.M. to Being There to Summerteeth set Yankee Hotel Foxtrot up to be the band’s next evolutionary link in that chain, and with its copious sonic embroidery, it delivered the expected experimentalism. Plus, the one-two punch of the recently-released Kid A and Amnesiac had the indie-rock world buzzing, and American magazines were itching to crown an “American Radiohead”. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot came along at just the right time to be the most logical candidate for the title.

So, despite being the most lauded of all Wilco efforts, one could make a compelling argument that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot isn’t really the band’s pinnacle. It does, however, document the transition period when a great band was becoming an extraordinary one. For instance, the effects of replacing drummer Ken Coomer with Glenn Kotche can be detected within the first minute of the album. But the albums that truly represent the full formation of Wilco’s genius are A Ghost is Born and Kicking Television: Live in Chicago, after keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen, guitarist Nels Cline, and utility player Pat Sansone had joined the band.

This new lineup expanded Wilco’s sonic capabilities, crafted more intricate arrangements, and executed far more impressive live performances than the band ever had before. Tellingly, the best versions of many of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot ‘s songs—“Ashes of American Flags,” for instance—are found on live recordings after Wilco’s personnel overhaul.

While I’ve never given Yankee Hotel Foxtrot the chance to gather much dust during the nearly ten years since it was released, I did give it some fresh, close listens for this project to try to check my existing assumptions, paying particular attention to the lesser-known tracks. (Quick: Hum the melody to “Poor Places.” How about “Radio Cure”?) And, absolutely, it’s a terrific record that contains many moments of real beauty, artful creativity, and fine musicianship. But A Ghost is Born and Sky Blue Sky are both stronger albums, recorded by a stronger band.

MGMTOracular Spectacular

Decades of pop and rock history swirl through MGMT’s debut: ‘60s psychedelia, ‘70s Bowie, ‘80s post-punk, ’90 electronica, ‘00s indie-rock. At the same time, when Oracular Spectacular landed in 2007, these guys managed to sound specifically of their moment. Or perhaps ahead of their moment. This was a soft bulletin with an extra tab of orange sunshine—both experimental enough and catchy enough for a trippy listen and for the unshowered festival masses. It became my fourth-most listened-to of all 2007 albums, so I definitely rode the MGMT wave at the time it was cresting. (2007 was, for me, the worst year for music of all the Aughties.)

It isn’t, however, an album I’ve felt compelled to return to often, and doing so for this project, I still think it’s an impressive product although I’ll also admit that some of the bloom is off the rose. A lot of the record still sounds quite interesting, and many of the production elements have held up beyond ephemeral trickery; plus, the songwriters have packed enough sturdy melodies into the album that it will continue to hold up as a solid collection of songs.

But, revisiting it, the record hits quite a few peaks, but also some valleys, especially when it gets stuck in repetitive drones, like “The Youth”. Still, it’s quite a trick these guys pulled off at the time, two unknown weirdos creating this crafty, creative record.

I remember thinking, “Are these guys playing these instruments? What are these instruments?” In that regard, all hail producer Dave Fridmann, the Flaming Lips’ secret weapon, as the real sonic magician on this record. After all, much of the time it isn’t so much Ben Goldwasser’s and Andrew VanWyngarden’s compositions that stand out as special—no use pretending there’s anything particularly awesome about the chords, melody, and lyrics of “Pieces of What,” for instance—it’s Fridmann’s layered, hazy, indie-tronic aural landscape that elevates this record.

“Time to Pretend” is still the gold standard cut on the debut, a better song and piece of production than “Kids,” although “Kids” drove audiences battier. But the other keeper is remains the second track, “Weekend Wars,” with its Bowie-esque melody and solipsistic lyrics. Although, as with most MGMT lyrics, good luck explicating the lyrics, another liability for the band. I like the way their lyrics sound, along with VanWyngarden’s Strawberry Fields vocals, but if the words are essentially gibberish, it’s sort of cheating, isn’t it?

I am of the opinion that MGMT’s Congratulations (2010) is a slightly stronger album. However, I’m apparently in the minority there; it clearly didn’t have the impact that the debut had.

And speaking of no impact, you’ve probably already forgotten that MGMT’s third album, titled MGMT, came out last year. Pretty amazing the death spiral from Oracular to MGMT. For instance, in the 2013 Pazz & Jop critics poll, MGMT received votes from only two of the 450 participating music writers, earning it its spot as the 454th (!) best album of the year. Yikes. And the silly giant-cowbell performance on Letterman wasn’t such a hot idea, especially in support of a lackluster lead single. Back to the drawing board, boys.

The White StripesWhite Blood Cells

I had White Blood Cells not long after it was released, and I don’t think I had heard either of the White Stripes’ first two records before White Blood Cells started getting a lot of attention. The album came out the same month as the Strokes’ Is This It?, an album that had been hyped for months prior, so these two records led the “garage rock revival”, or whatever your favorite term is for whatever was happening when these were the coolest albums that helped cut through the debilitating preoccupation and paranoia surrounding the 9/11 attacks. (Remember which album came out on the day of the attacks? Bob Dylan’s Love and Theft.)

On one hand, I admire Jack White’s artistic ambition, his dedication to curation and preservation of musical heritage, his fondness for and assistance to Loretta Lynn and Wanda Jackson, and his penchant for loud, gritty rock and roll. On the other hand, at least half of White’s output, as either a Stripe, Raconteur, Dead Weatherman, or solo artist makes me wish he was a better songwriter or otherwise leaves me cold.

Revisiting White Blood Cells, I react essentially the same way I did a dozen years ago when it was new: the material ranges from very good to kind-of-crappy. Jack’s (and, one supposes, Meg’s) efforts to include whatever riff-monster sketch sticks to the garage wall result in some spine-severingly rocking moments, but the strategy of White Blood Cells also lends itself to fragments and shtick. I’m equally fickle on Jack’s singing voice: For every song on which his high, thin whine supplies rawking liftoff (“Fell in Love with a Girl”), there’s another on which his wobbly affectations irritate rather than ignite (“I Smell a Rat”).

The album is frontloaded with its best songs, but it isn’t long before it is revealed that a few of White’s ideas here are half-baked and the songs half-finished, so there isn’t a whole lot to non-songs like “Little Room” and “Aluminum”. The most fully-realized songs, like “I’m Finding It Harder to Be a Gentleman” and “Fell in Love With a Girl” are the best ones here; I just wish the album wasn’t only partially full of those kinds of compositions.

There’s something to be said, of course, for the rawness and sonic defiance in the White Stripes’ approach on this album, with snippets, almighty guitar squawk, and lack of embellishment, but there’s a difference between a lack of sonic refinement for raw effect and a lazy lack of attention to lyrical and structural development, which appears to sometimes be the case. To his credit, White would demonstrate both better songwriting and record-making the next time out with Elephant.

There are interesting things to be analyzed about Jack White with respects to White Blood Cells. Years later, questiosn can still be raised about White’s process in making his weird little album with his candy-striped sartorial gimmick, hopeful for a breakthrough. Of course, he was certainly unable to foresee the kind of meteoric rise and subsequent artistic license he would experience. But the album turned out to be a hard shot in the arm and had an immediate industry impact from top to bottom, not the least of which was the rise of trash-blues guitar-and-drum garage-rock duos. So we have the White Stripes to thank (or to blame), if not for the existence then at least the popularity, of bands like Japandroids, Deap Valley, and, of course, the Black Keys.

For my part, I’m no devotee of the form. Rarely do I hear any of these groups when I don’t yearn for the presence of a bass guitar. I understand the primitive directness of the axe-and-drum rock punch and the emphasis on uncooked mojo. Still, if you add a bass guitar: Even better. And as for the Black Keys, I like some of the material on their studio releases, but if you’ve never been bored at a Black Keys concert then your drugs must have been excellent.

“The Union Forever”, White Blood Cells‘ seventh track, nonetheless remains a favorite of mine in spite of the album’s weaknesses, primarily because I love Citizen Kane. The song borrows lines from the film (“You gotta love me”; “What would I like to be? Everything you hate”), and the title refers to the easy-to-miss line spoken by little Charlie playing in the snow at his boyhood cabin in Colorado, just before he’s snatched away by Mr. Thatcher, leaving his parents, home, and sled behind forever. Charlie is playing a Civil War game, but, as it turns out, there is indeed no forever union, and White extends the film’s theme by singing “There is no real love,” another buried moment in the film—they are the lyrics to the song being sung at the beach picnic toward the end of the film. The middle part replicates the song performed in Kane’s honor after he acquires the Chronicle staff, another fun souvenir for Kane buffs.

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