Feb 272015

Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!

yankee hotel foxtrot covers

Writing about Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot seems a little like eating at a buffet right before closing. There may be a few good things left, but it is pretty well picked over, and what’s left has lost its flavor. Few rock albums of the past 20 years have been discussed and analyzed as much as YHF. Yet we proceed, undaunted, because what we do is different. And maybe, just maybe, listening to a full set of covers of each song of this great album will allow you to hear it anew. Because you never know when the buffet is going to get restocked with something fresh.

One of the reasons that the album has been so much discussed is its unusual backstory, which can be seen as the folly of the music business in microcosm. And also because a movie happened to be made about the process.

To recap: Wilco’s second album, 1996’s Being There, found them being acclaimed as a “Next Big Thing.” They recorded songs for the follow-up, but then took a break to work with Billy Bragg on the Mermaid Avenue project, writing new music to Woody Guthrie lyrics. Jeff Tweedy, the band’s leader, wasn’t all that excited about doing it, but Jay Bennett, who was asserting more authority in the group, pressed for it. Then, Bragg and Wilco didn’t get along, ultimately creating their own songs independently, refusing to tour together, and arguing over money. Despite the mess, the project deservedly received both critical and popular acclaim.

When Wilco returned to the studio to finish what would become 1999’s Summerteeth, Tweedy and Bennett decided to use studio tools and overdubbing, rather than following their prior approach of mostly recording in studio, alienating the rest of the band, particularly drummer Ken Coomer. Both Tweedy and Bennett were using various drugs, which also led to issues among the members. The Reprise label pushed hard for a single; after some spirited disagreement, Wilco conceded and released a more radio-friendly remix of “Can’t Stand It.” While the album received generally good reviews, the single went nowhere, and the seeds of Wilco’s resentment against label meddling had been sown.

Before starting work on the next album, the band decided to tour behind a second Mermaid Avenue collection. Then, Tweedy appeared at a music festival with producer/musician Jim O’Rourke and drummer Glenn Kotche, a collaboration that he apparently enjoyed because it allowed him to explore new and different sounds.

All this angst and turmoil set the stage for the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot saga.

Wilco returned to the studio and recorded the demos for their next album, with the working title Here Comes Everybody. During this time period, photographer and director Sam Jones suggested to Tweedy and band management that he create a documentary about the recording of the new album, from “the first chords to the album cover art,” and they agreed. Jones arrived at Wilco’s loft in January, 2001, only to find that drummer Coomer had been sacked the day before, following heated disputes with Tweedy over his drumming, which no longer fit the sound Tweedy was looking for. Shortly thereafter, Coomer was replaced by Kotche, a more flexible and nuanced player, and the album was recorded.

During the recording and mixing process, initially supervised by Bennett, fissures began to develop in the Tweedy/Bennett relationship. The album was ultimately mixed by O’Rourke and was, in Tweedy’s mind, ready for release. That’s when things started to get even stranger.

First, the Reprise label, which had gone through cutbacks leading to an executive revolving door that eliminated the band’s most powerful ally, shelved the album, believing it too uncommercial for release. Rather than repeat the “Can’t Stand It,” fight, Wilco’s management arranged to buy the rights to the album for $50,000 (later reduced to $0). Then Bennett, who in the film appeared to be vying with Tweedy for power, was booted from the band. The buyout forced the release to be delayed from the originally planned date – September 11, 2001, when other, more pressing events wound up taking place anyway.

Somehow, mp3s of the album began to appear on filesharing sites of dubious legality, so the band decided, in what was a radical move for 2001, to stream the new album on its website. Wilco thus got to hear fans singing along to the unreleased songs during the tour that had been planned to coincide with the now-delayed release. (The tour was not rescheduled because of the attack, or because of the postponed release, because the band desperately needed the money.)

In what is considered to be one of the great music business ironies, the rights to YHF were then sold to Nonesuch Records, a Time Warner corporate sibling of Reprise, and the album was officially released in April, 2002, to rapturous critical reviews and commercial success. It continues to be the Wilco album that all other Wilco albums are compared to, and appears on numerous “Best Of” lists.

As you might expect, there are many covers of YHF songs, although some have been more widely covered than others. With rare exceptions (Norah Jones and the Punch Brothers among them), most well-known artists have avoided covering songs from the album. And, maybe because of the somewhat iconic nature of the album, most of the covers seem to either be attempts to duplicate the dense, unusual sound of the original, or stripped down, acoustic guitar covers. Not surprisingly, we here at Cover Me have posted and discussed a few of these covers over the years. We will not be lazy, though; instead, we will look at this great album, and some of its bonus tracks, through a fresh set of covers.

Lauren O’Connell – I Am Trying To Break Your Heart (Wilco cover)

One of the myths about YHF is that it was Jim O’Rourke who pushed the band toward the sonic experimentation that became identified with the album’s sound. But this myth fails on at least two counts. First, listening to Summerteeth, you can hear all sorts of electronics and odd noises, so clearly, the band was moving in that direction. Second, O’Rourke actually toned down the weirdness. As O’Rourke said in Rolling Stone right before the album was finally released, “It’s like, are you kidding?!? I was pulling it out! You should’ve heard the record before. This whole myth about Warner Bros. turning it down for being uncommercial . . . you should’ve heard the original.” And while the first track on YHF does start with electronics and a drum pattern, and includes a bunch of weird sounds, compare it to the “Engineer Demo” version, probably mixed by Bennett. It is, if anything, weirder, more experimental and less commercial. Lauren O’Connell, a musician from Rochester, New York, recreates much of the sonic texture of the original, but in an analog way — you can see in the video that she uses actual water and wine glasses, a couch, a notebook, metal drawers, slamming doors, and kicking things in a garage — to create ambiance and produce a fascinating cover.

Francesco Piarulli – Kamera (Wilco cover)

For those who were concerned that Wilco had abandoned their roots, “Kamera” starts off with a strummed acoustic guitar and a straightforward beat. Yes, as the song goes on, there are some bleeps and bloops in the background, but overall, this is not too removed from the band’s past. I am always a sucker for a foreign language cover; this is an Italian one by Francesco Piarulli, about whom information is sparse. I don’t speak Italian and can’t vouch for the translation, but musically at least, it’s faithful to the original. It is also subtitled, for some reason, “Io ammazzo Dozzo” (which, according to Google Translate, means “I kill Dozzo”), and it ends with a short spoken passage in Italian, for which I invite translations in the comments.

Yesoteric – Radio Cure (Wilco cover)

Maybe the most personal song on YHF, “Radio Cure” appears to both address Tweedy’s debilitating migraines (“There is something wrong with me/My mind is filled with silvery stars/Honey, kisses, clouds of fog”) and the stresses in his marriage resulting from touring (“Oh, distance has no way of making love understandable.”) It is, for most of the song, pretty downbeat, until it picks up at the end. Fittingly, this relatively faithful cover (probably created in a basic home studio) is by Eric Scott, a mental health professional and musician, currently based in Nashville, who records as Yesoteric.

Josephines – War on War (Wilco cover)

This is the first of (at least) three songs on the album that many mistakenly have considered to relate to the 9/11 attacks. As discussed above, though, it was written and completed before that day, so this song is not about the global war on terror. Instead, according to Tweedy, it is about needing to face and accept failure in order to be able to live life to its fullest. It is, therefore, an optimistic song, and in this case, the bouncy music is consistent with the message. The lyric “You have to learn how to die/If you want to want to be alive” inspired the title of Greg Kot’s excellent book about the band. Josephines take a somewhat more ponderous approach, which may be because, being from Brazil, their interpretation of the lyrics is skewed by not having English as their first language. On the other hand, Tweedy’s lyrics often baffle native speakers, so maybe it was just a musical choice.

Choir! Choir! Choir! – Jesus, Etc. (Wilco cover)

Again, despite references to tall buildings shaking and skyscrapers scraping together, “Jesus, Etc.” isn’t about September 11. (Though it is interesting that Wilco didn’t play this song during their appearance in midtown Manhattan on September 27 and 28, 2001, which were still pretty intense shows performed while Ground Zero still smoldered.) So what is it about? As usual, it’s hard to tell, but likely it is yet another song about the ambivalence of love — both the pain and the joy. “Jesus, Etc.” is one of the most accessible of the songs on YHF, and it was the only single from the album to chart. It was, apparently, originally going to be called “Jesus Don’t Cry,” but Bennett got lazy and wrote the shortened version of the title on a disc, which stuck. It may be the most frequently covered Wilco song, from Norah Jones to many, many people in their living rooms and home studios. We will go in a direction different from most of these, and give you a choir version, from Toronto’s Choir! Choir! Choir!, an open, drop-in, no commitment group that has appeared onstage with both Patti Smith and Tegan and Sara.

James Eric and Erin Vogel – Ashes of American Flags (Wilco cover)

Still not about September 11, it appears that this plaintive track is a look at American society, with mundane observations gradually morphing into a questioning about the country’s direction, and a longing for something better before devolving into noise and feedback (which includes a segment of a Stravinsky piece played backwards through a synthesizer). This song may not only be the temporal center of the album (track 6 of 11), it may well be the emotional center. And yet, it is not often covered. This version, by James Eric (a Cover Me favorite) and Erin Vogel, comes from a session they did in which they performed all of YHF live, in a studio, without rehearsal. It is, therefore, imperfect, and yet is touching in its simplicity.

Brian Akey – Heavy Metal Drummer (Wilco cover)

If you have seen Jones’ film, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, there is probably no more memorable scene than the discussion between Tweedy and Bennett about the transition from “Ashes” to “Heavy Metal Drummer,” followed by Tweedy’s trip to hurl in the bathroom. It is painful, for so many reasons, and is generally considered to presage the end of Bennett’s time in Wilco. It is strange that this excruciating scene relates to what is probably the most fun, lighthearted song on the album — a nostalgic pop song about watching metal bands during the summer at “Laclede’s Landing,” a popular, touristy nightclub area in St. Louis. Tweedy has noted that at the time, as a lover of punk, he and his friends mostly mocked the cheesy metal cover bands, but has, in retrospect, realized that they were having fun. Another great moment from the film is when Tweedy plays the song with his young son Spencer, who now, fourteen or so years later, is a talented drummer who has released a fine album with dad. The cover, by Brian Akey, an author and member of the Winterpills (who created our No. 4 ranked cover album of 2014), is pretty faithful to the original.

Ace Reporter – I’m The Man Who Loves You (Wilco cover)

A second fun song in a row, and a love song to boot – but not without an edge. Although it is a song professing love, the singer seems more focused on reassuring his love that, despite his flaws, and his difficulty in expressing his love, he really is the man who loves her. This fits into one of the clear themes of this album (and its predecessor), the difficulty in maintaining a relationship as a touring musician. It also demonstrates Tweedy’s self-awareness. He can be a jerk, distant and unfeeling, but at least he knows that he is. Starting with some distorted sounds, the song soon resolves into a pretty straight-ahead rocker, and even has horns. The cover, another fairly faithful one, was recorded by Chris Snyder, recording as Ace Reporter, as part of the ThreeSixFive project, a “song a day for a year” task that he set for himself to recover from the “emotional plane crash” of the breakup of his band The States. This was day 206, and the project ultimately recharged his psychological batteries, resulting in the release of 4 EPs of songs from the project and a full-length album of new material (engineered and mixed by Chris Grainger, an engineer on Summerteeth).

The Great Matt Wilson Band – Pot Kettle Black (Wilco cover)

Maybe this song also is about Tweedy’s self-awareness. The title evokes the phrase, “The pot calling the kettle black,” meaning that the accuser is guilty of that which he is accusing another. Here, Tweedy accuses: “It’s become so obvious/You are so oblivious to yourself/You’re tied in a knot.” And yet, he flips the maxim, admitting: “But I’m not gonna get caught/Calling a pot kettle black.” Musically, this song hearkens back to both the layered production of Summerteeth and the pedal steel twang of its first two albums, but with a twist. The Great Matt Wilson Band, a vehicle for Los Angeles-based musician Matt Gilson (no typo, that), isn’t bad, but it lacks some of the energy of the original.

Mitch Sutton – Poor Places (Wilco cover)

Like another great album two decades before, YHF starts to turn toward slower, more atmospheric songs at its end. “Poor Places” is the transition, starting off with electronics, and then building, layer by layer into an almost jazzy middle section before turning into a minute or so of noise, with a woman’s voice repeating the phrase “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” (sampled from an album of shortwave radio numbers) over and over before an abrupt ending. It is easy to lose sight of the fact that, under all of the noise and production, there is a pretty good song. The Punch Brothers’ cover reclaimed the song, by using their folk/bluegrass sound. Similarly, Mitch Sutton, the keyboard player for the Morgantown, West Virginia band Good Hustle, takes a simple, effective approach to the song with just acoustic guitar and his voice.

Nick Barfoot – Reservations (Wilco cover)

A divisive song, and a divided one. The first 3 or so minutes are a beautiful, elegiac song about Tweedy’s ambivalence about “so many things, but not about you.” The last 4 minutes are quiet noise, beautiful and Eno-esque, causing the album to just fade away (not unlike Talking Heads’ “The Overload,” to beat this comparison into the ground). There are some who argue that the song, and album, should have ended after the first section, while others passionately support the full track. I’m not sure that the noise would have been missed if it had been omitted, but if you listen to the album as a whole, it is somehow right. Nick Barfoot, a software developer and musician from Ottawa, created this beautiful, instrumental cover of the song (just the first part) and released it on the just-passed Valentine’s Day.

Bonus: Dan Lurie – Not For The Season (Wilco cover)

Many tracks were demoed for YHF, but not all made it to the final version. Some were released by the band over time, while others are known to exist through releases (official or otherwise) of various demos. “Not For The Season,” exists in two separate demo versions, and also, significantly reworked, as “Laminated Cat” from the Tweedy/O’Rourke/Kotche side project, Loose Fur. Both Wilco and Tweedy, in solo shows, still play this one. You can decide if you prefer the rocking demo version or the more atmospheric Loose Fur version. Dan Lurie, a self-described “indie-folk tunesmith” from Portland, Oregon, kind of splits the difference in this cover.

Bonus: iwaslikeyo – Cars Can’t Escape (Wilco cover)

Originally available as a download from the band’s website, this song, with an almost Beatle-esque sound, would have fit right into YHF (there is some speculation that Tweedy excluded it out of spite towards Bennett, but who knows). In the liner notes to the recently released Alpha Mike Foxtrot, a compilation of rare tracks, Tweedy notes that it is one of the band’s most requested unreleased songs, and that, “in retrospect, it probably should have made the record because it’s a thoroughly captivating recording.”

This cover of “Cars Can’t Escape” was the only song posted by Soundcloud user iwaslikeyo, a.k.a. Jeff Marini, who tells Cover Me, “I’m not a professional musician; I’m simply a photographer from Chicago with a bunch of instruments and a computer in his studio apartment.” His version may not be quite as captivating as the original, but it’s pretty good for a fan who takes some truly captivating pictures.

Bonus: Jay Bennett & Edward Burch – Venus Stop(ped) The Train (Wilco cover)

Bonus: Jay Bennett & Edward Burch – Shakin’ Sugar (a/k/a Alone) (Wilco cover)

These two songs were co-written by Jay Bennett, and they didn’t make the final cut of YHF. After Bennett’s removal from Wilco, he recorded, with long-time collaborator Edward Burch, an album called The Palace at 4 A.M. (Part 1). It also included contributions from former Wilco members Ken Coomer and Max Johnston (Michelle Shocked’s brother), and current Wilco member John Stirratt. The album (coincidentally(?) released the same day as YHF), displays Bennett’s usual production wizardry/overkill, but is hampered by weak vocals. It also includes versions of these two songs (and a version of Summerteeth’s “My Darlin’.”)  You can compare them with the Wilco demo versions here and here. After leaving Wilco, Bennett released a few albums and appeared on and produced records for others, but he never obtained the level of commercial or critical success that his former bandmates achieved. In 2009, after revealing that he needed hip replacement surgery that he could not afford, he sued Tweedy relating to his time in Wilco, but shortly thereafter died of an accidental overdose of fentanyl.

What would have happened to Wilco, and Bennett, had he remained in the band are certainly interesting questions, although it is clear that at this point, Tweedy was intent on making sure that Wilco was his band, so Bennett was likely to be pushed out eventually. It is easy to look at the YHF story as a series of metaphors, for the music business, for interpersonal relationships, for egos and band dynamics, and even, in retrospect, for September 11. But if, like Jim O’Rourke mixing the tracks, you strip away the context, you are left with a brilliant album, filled with great songs.

Download the album on Amazon and iTunes, and learn more about this album and its story from Greg Kot’s book and Sam Jones’ film.

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