Against the grain

Wilco and Lauryn Hill aim for music not money

| June 20, 2002
Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
(Nonesuch Records)

It’s been a long time coming for a band that doesn’t lie down and die for the Man. You know who the Man is, and that band is Wilco. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was recorded more than a year ago and in that time the band was dropped by Warner Brothers (the record wasn’t “radio-friendly”), and lost longtime drummer Ken Coomer and Jeff Tweedy’s right-hand man, keyboardist/guitarist Jay Bennett. A year later, Wilco signed with Nonesuch Records, the band was transformed, and a piece of musical poetry was finally released to a very impatient, growing group of devout fans.

Wilco has continually transcended itself since their advent and first two country-fused albums, AM and Being There. They dug into a treasure of lost Woody Guthrie songs with Billy Bragg, wrote music to Guthrie’s words, and released probably two of the most unique volumes of American music of their kind, the Mermaid Avenue sessions. Then there was Summerteeth and a transformation for the band: a brave journey into pop, Pet Sounds style. A handful of fans lost their shit and the rest stayed on in anticipation for the next invention, which is what every song on YHF is: an invention, a new sound vehicle for poetry. Wilco blends random sounds from the innards of machines with simple rock and roll so perfectly that it comes out sounding like acoustic guitar and distorted radio waves were meant to be together.

The album isn’t always easy to listen to. Tweedy, the songwriter, holds nothing back; he cries for you, screams for you, explores his heavy heart, but, as always, expresses himself in light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek, bitter irony. He puts words together like pieces of a collage, then presents them musically unlike any band does today. The first track, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” sounds like a symphony stuffed through a carnival machine, decomposed and broken down to its essentials, then painted with lines like “I am an American aquarium drinker, I assassin down the avenue,” “This is not a joke so please stop smiling,” and last but not least, “Dispensable-Dixie-cup-drinker.”

“War on War,” “Heavy Metal Drummer,” “Jesus, Etc.,” and “I’m the Man that Loves You” are probably the catchiest songs of the summer. “Heavy Metal Drummer” is a hazy flashback to all those bands and festivals of yesteryear, and that girl who fell in love with the drummer…then another and another.

Wilco know its roots. Wilco evolves. Those lucky enough to have seen the band in Missoula last November will probably testify to its creative genius. Those who still don’t know who the hell Wilco is are missing out on one of the most underrated bands in America. Lauryn Hill, MTV Unplugged No. 2.0
(Columbia)

There’s not much to be said about Lauryn Hill’s Unplugged because it needs to be listened to before one can make any judgments. But let it be said that Lauryn Hill has some things to get off her chest, and doesn’t give a damn if what they have to say makes you feel uncomfortable. Sister’s got a song to sing—quite a few of them actually, and she might even make room for seven interludes, an intro and an outro.

Simplicity. That might be the beauty of this album, though you can’t really quite call it an album. Unplugged might not win Hill another Grammy, but it’s surely as brave as The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, and maybe even more so. Like all great artists, Hill has transcended herself, and she transcended the whole of hip-hop with the release of Miseducation. Unplugged is different, raw, and for the most part only she and her guitar. You won’t hear Eric Clapton’s fingerwork here, but you will hear a “music star” do something no other diva out there has the courage to do: Give the world herself and no one else. This album is priceless because of that.

Many things are obvious while listening to this album: Hill has had a complete spiritual transformation and has discovered God. As she slips into “Adam Lives in Theory,” a song about mankind (mankind without exception, for all those who still think Lauryn Hill is a racist), she calmly lays this down: “I know a lot of the content in the songs is very heavy, but, see, fantasy is what everybody wants, but reality is what everyone needs, and I’ve just retired from the fantasy part.” Every song reflects that rebirth and wisdom. Every song is full of life, truth, and the strength to say what she thinks is wrong with the world. But Hill does more than simply accuse everyone in her rants. She includes herself in those accusations and offers solutions after the confrontation of her own problems.

True, many of the songs sound the same, but Hill’s voice is so strong and sure that the slight repetition becomes trivial in light of her poetry. Lauryn Hill is a poet, and these songs are about the words. If you don’t agree with what Hill has to say, you’ll probably hate this album. If you do see something wrong with greed and deception’s grip on the world, you’re already in love with it.

We are very lucky to have someone like Lauryn Hill today. She has proved herself in an industry of greed and materialism and now has the courage to walk away and has survived to talk about it with brutal honesty and clarity. Let’s hope this doesn’t mean no more music from Lauryn Hill. But if so, we are all the more blessed to have her sit down, talk with us and sing us her songs.

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