I don't know much about the music of Wilco, and when I hear their brand of sound I am not usually aware it is that critically-acclaimed band until the DJ's announcement. They seem not to make an impression on me one way or the other, and that's fine. People like their music and good for them. But I can now say thank you to Tweedy and co. for sampling one of the Conet Projects' anonymous operators with the now famous Yankee...hotel...foxtrot mantra. Were it not for that sample, and the actual words being used as the title for the band's most famous CD, then The Conet Project [Irdial-Discs] might have been forever buried in the cryptic grave for which it seemed destined.
Compiler and obsessive short-wave number station seeker, Akin Fernandez, spent years and countless dollars searching out these random bits of esotery and making them available to anyone who might be interested in voices speaking phrases and reciting numbers which have no apparent purpose. The project was originally put out with his own money, which basically bankrupted him. After Wilco's biting of the sample, a lawsuit loomed and a settlement was reached allowing The Conet Project to be distributed on a larger scale. Thanks again, Mr. Tweedy.
What is The Conet Project? Again, mostly a series of numbers being read for no discernable reason collected over 4 CDs. The short-wave broadcasts and muted sound quality give the thing a strange otherworldly feel, and the theory that these are communiqués from several intelligence agencies to field operatives makes it all seem like forbidden fruit. Of course the random numbers and phrases, read in English, Spanish, Czech, German, etc., might just be nothing. It all could be a joke. But who would break the law by hijacking short-wave air space just to read numbers? And who would get a license to broadcast illogically strung together words? Perhaps the codes mean nothing more sinister than "Our ships have docked in Madagascar. We will proceed west tomorrow." Or maybe they mean, "Agent 214, complete task as instructed and eliminate the Ambassador." No one is taking credit for the broadcasts but a few agencies have admitted that such tactics were used for passing encrypted messages to their international spies. Regardless of the truth, the illusion is intriguing and often downright creepy. As is often the case with life and art, illusions are fascinating and preferable to truth. I like living in the illusion (or is it...?) that The Conet Project is something my ears were never supposed to hear. In this age of increased security and the constant hazy threat of attacks from people called "terrorists", something like this makes me feel as though I am violating a part of the Patriot Act.
The news of The Conet Project came my way from a good friend who told me he likes to listen to the thing with the lights off as he is trying to sleep. It seems to induce odd dreams. To be sure, the distorted voices and occasional electronic blips and pieces of telephone keypad music do sound nothing short of eerie. After a full listen to the multi-disc box set, one might get spooked, bored or hypnotized. Whatever the reaction, this is possibly the most exciting thing to happen in music in quite some time.
Yes, I said music. Striped of tradition, music is essentially sound intended to evoke. The Conet Project is definitely capable of this feat. Fans of Phillip Glass' long enduring classic Einstein on the Beach will understand the appeal of listening to numbers repeated for no particular reason. Conspiracy geeks will get a giddy thrill. Avant-Garde or noise fanatics will find the collection intriguing. Conventional rock lovers will run. But if the most loved band since R.E.M. can see something in this sprawling world of mystery, perhaps you can too. Personally, I'd sooner listen to some unknown woman reading numbers in Spanish then listen to 90% of the fluff choking the FM radio waves. The future of recorded art may live in the crackling of short-wave radio.