Wilco Not Over

Jeff Tweedy remakes his band

WILCO with Neil Michael Hagerty at Convocation Hall (31 King’s College Circle), Sunday (April 21). $25.50-$29.50. 416-870-8000.

Rating: NNNNN

pop quiz: so you’re this respected band, right?, with a totally loyal fan base, and you’re getting ready to drop your first record in three years. Critics and fans are frothing at the mouth in anticipation. What do you do?

Napster squabbles aside, putting the entire album up for grabs on your Web site seems like shooting yourself in the foot.

But Jeff Tweedy, the frontman and mastermind behind Wilco, is not a stupid guy. Unconventional, sure. But definitely not dumb.

He looks slightly uncomfortable sitting across from me in the lobby of the King Edward Hotel as I ask about giving away all the tracks from Wilco’s upcoming Yankee Hotel Foxtrot disc well in advance of the release date.

The alt-country superstar insists it was a carefully planned manoeuvre he’d been wanting to execute for years.

“Aside from taking advances and making relatively cheap recordings so we could save some money, we’ve never received a royalty check from any of the records,” he explains. “We’ve always made our money from touring.”

Given that Wilco walked away from their label, Reprise, after a preliminary version of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was rejected as too experimental, you might suspect that posting the tracks was a giant “Fuck you” from the band to their former label.

Not so. According to Tweedy, they’d already scored complete control of the recordings by the time they went up on the site.

Too experimental? Forget it. The tracks on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot have pure pop nuggets at their core, although they’re buried beneath washes of dissonant guitar and piano noise, distorted vocal samples and layers of oblique sonic noodling. They’re not No Depression material, but they have more in common with the rootsy tunes on Wilco’s breakthrough Being There disc than with anything by Philip Glass.

Avant-pop savant Jim O’Rourke (Sonic Youth) came on board to engineer the weird Wilco train after the tracks were recorded. Tweedy maintains O’Rourke was the only guy he could think of whose sensibilities were simpatico with the more experimental direction the record was taking.

O’Rourke’s title of engineer seems even more appropriate: the dude had to construct aural landscapes. But contrary to what most people might assume, his influence was more grounding than out-there.

“I wanted the songs to have real depth of field, to make it feel like you could walk right into them,” says Tweedy. “The main objective in mixing the record was to bring the songs back into focus. They were tied up in noise and weirdness, and Jim actually sculpted them back into songs.”

The album really is three-dimensional. If you listen to it from one point in the room, you get the impression you’re hearing transmissions from a faraway planet. Move so you’re facing another speaker and the tunes take on an unbearably claustrophobic feel.

Wilco’s also got a whole new roster for this album. Since 1999’s Summerteeth, Tweedy’s said not entirely amicable goodbyes to drummer Ken Coomer and guitarist-keyboardist Jay Bennett. Both men have been vocal about their post-breakup bitterness, specifically about where the band was headed.

“I’ve heard the band called a dictatorship, and nothing is farther from the truth,” says Tweedy. “Nobody’s made any effort trying to diminish Jay’s contributions to the band.”

But what about replacing your old drummer with Glenn Kotche, who just happens to be a buddy of O’Rourke’s?

“With Glenn, there was just a real effortless communication between us,” Tweedy protests. “It just became harder and harder to communicate with Ken. Not on a personal level — I really cared about him a whole lot it just wasn’t as good a fit. I don’t have any reservations about that decision as far as the music goes. As a friend, I feel bad that Ken was hurt by it, and I probably should’ve done something differently to make it easier.”


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