I've had the best album of 2001 in my hands since last August. For weeks after that, it was in whatever CD player I happened to be near, and spinning in my head if I couldn't find one. Even after all of those listens, I still haven't heard all of it, even if I've listened to every song dozens of times. Something new comes out of hiding each time -- a few words I didn't catch before, a sound that slipped past my ears the last time. It is a brave, beautiful album, a 52-minute demonstration of exactly what music should be and rarely is. And all you can call it is music, because trying to stuff Wilco's square peg, the unreleased Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, into the round hole of rock 'n' roll, or anything else, just doesn't work. Purely and simply, it's music -- rock, pop, soul, country, blues, everything. It's the best mix tape ever recorded and forgotten on a dirty floorboard, songs and sounds leaking from one side to the other until something new is created.
In the years to come, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot might be remembered as a landmark album, a milestone marking when things changed, much like Radiohead's Kid A and Amnesiac. However, the public still hasn't had a chance to hear it. And it's not just a shame -- it's a damned crime. On its best days, music has nothing to do with business; unfortunately for Wilco, those days are few and far between. In the days when songs are merely soundtracks for videos -- or worse, incidental music between segments on Total Request Live -- those days are merely a distant memory, something for the old folks and record-store clerks to talk about.
On April 23, when Yankee Hotel Foxtrot finally stumbles into record stores, none of this will matter. So it won't be released by Reprise Records, the once-fearless label responsible for nurturing Neil Young and Randy Newman and so many others, and the label that released Wilco's previous three records, 1995's A.M., 1996's Being There and 1999's Summerteeth -- so what? Instead, it's coming out on Nonesuch, a label that's slowly expanded from a classical and world-beat focus to include rock and pop. The album will be out, and no one will care what took so long or who's releasing it. For now, however, the fact that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot remains unreleased is a perfect example of everything wrong within the music industry. Too bad it's not the only evidence there is to choose from.
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That said, it is wrong to blame Reprise as a whole for abandoning Wilco. The reason: No one at the label -- except for one person, David Kahne -- knew Wilco was going until the group was already gone. Reprise's longtime president, Howie Klein, resigned on June 29, and in his absence, Kahne -- the executive vice president of A&R (artist and repertoire) at Warner Bros. Inc., Reprise's parent company -- was temporarily in charge of the company. Tom Whalley was eventually chosen to succeed Klein, but at the time, he was still running Interscope Records, with no idea what the label was giving away.
As it turns out, Whalley could have moved into Klein's old office on June 30 and the damage would have already been done. On June 29, the same day Klein resigned, Kahne informed Wilco he was rejecting Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, a decision that led to the termination of the group's contract, even though Wilco owed Reprise several more records. According to sources, Kahne listened to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and believed it would kill Wilco's career. He was only saving the band from itself, he believed, as if front man Jeff Tweedy ever cared whether he sold 10 million copies or 10.
It's clear from one listen to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot that Tweedy never gave one thought to commercial prospects, not that he ever has before. You could hear him and the band striving for something on Summerteeth -- and, to a lesser extent, on Being There -- but it wasn't clear until all 11 tracks of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot had finished playing just what that something was. Tweedy, a former record-store clerk, is a fan first and musician second, and with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, he finally manages to combine everything he loves about music into one song, and then, miraculously, he does it over and over. It's old music paired with new technology and new music put in a forgotten context, Woody Guthrie with a laptop or Elvis Costello playing for pennies outside a Mississippi storefront. It's a love letter and a signpost, stuck happily between past, present and future.
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Employees at Reprise knew this, and Tom Whalley knows it, too. Whalley has said privately he never would have let Wilco go, but at this point, there's nothing he can do. Employees at the label were and are furious; Wilco was one of the few acts on Reprise with both critical respect and commercial viability. Their records didn't cost much to make, and they always made money for the label. More important, Wilco's presence on Reprise's roster gave the illusion that the label remained the artist-friendly outfit it was when executives like Mo Ostin and Lenny Waronker, men who heard the music before they decided if they heard cash registers as well, signed the checks. Maybe Whalley will bring Reprise back to those days of respectability. God knows it'll be hard with people like Kahne in charge.
Now that Wilco is gone, label employees can't even listen to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and wonder what might have been: All advance copies of the disc were confiscated, even from the most valued employees. One of them, who declines to be identified, says that had he known all copies of the album were going to be yanked, well, he might have burned a copy or two.
The songs from the album did find their way -- via MP3s -- to the Internet, which is where we were able to come by our copy, and it's the only place you can hear Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, for now. When it comes down to it, that's all that matters, and all that ever mattered -- the 11 tracks on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, those 11 songs covered in dusty brilliance. Despite Kahne's intentions, the songs were not lost: Tweedy and the band made a deal with Reprise to buy Yankee Hotel Foxtrot back from the label, and Tweedy and his manager, Tony Margherita, began negotiating with other labels.
The process was certainly slowed by the traumatic impact of the September 11 attacks (Tweedy and Margherita were both in New York when the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapsed). But now, with the band on tour and the record's release at last imminent, you get the sense that the group is coming out of the ordeal even better off than before. Tweedy seemed to sense it months ago. "It feels like Christmas," he told the Chicago Tribune's Greg Kot last August, after signing the agreement that allowed Wilco and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to leave Reprise together. "I don't feel victimized. I feel liberated."