Wilco: The Little Band That Could

Wilco is one of those bands that major labels refer to as a "credibility act." As in, they're respected by serious artists and discerning listeners, but too complex musically to make money for the record company. But now that the music business is run by five conglomerates and credibility is no longer in demand, acts like Wilco have become financial soft spots rather than tokens of cool cachet.

What a surprise it must have been to the band's former label, Reprise, when the Wilco album it rejected, "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," broke into Billboard's top 15 last week. The Chicago band is now enjoying its highest chart debut ever. "There's a bit of a rock-and-roll swindle going on," says Wilco's singer and guitarist Jeff Tweedy, 34, who's been called the best songwriter of his generation. His band is now signed to Nonesuch, which, like Reprise, is owned by AOL Time Warner. "The parent company paid for a record, gave it away, then bought it back again. Maybe I shouldn't draw attention to that fact."

Wilco has wooed critics since its 1995 inception, and its fourth album is one of its most impressive yet. It offers ephemeral sounds and instrumentation stretched atop indelible song structures. Tweedy's depressed-guy vocals are rough around the edges, while his lyrics are spare, painful and poetic.

The fact that Wilco did not remake a more accessible album for Reprise--and released "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" on its own Web site last year--has rendered Tweedy a superhero of indie rockers. "It's not like we did something noble," says Tweedy, squirming in his chair. "We just did what we were supposed to do. You're not supposed to kill people either--not because it's against the law, but because it's something you just don't do."