Near the start of Alpha Mike Foxtrot, a 77-track collection of rarities, alternate takes, and live tracks from across Wilco’s 20-year career, Jeff Tweedy can be heard worrying about whether he has a place in the long line of great singer/songwriters that came before him. “You already know the story, the chords are just the same,” he sings, accompanied by strums and warbling cassette ambience. “You already know I love you, now I sound like what’s-his-name.”
When he recorded the demo of “Someone Else’s Song”, Tweedy was entering a scary new phase of his musical—and personal—life after the dissolution of alt-country heroes Uncle Tupelo, in which he mostly played second fiddle to fellow frontman Jay Farrar. And in 1995, the same year the demo was originally released, the then-28-year-old became a new husband and father, with little name recognition and no discernible life skills other than writing and singing songs. But even on that imperfect artifact, a lot of what would later define Tweedy as an artist was apparent: the casualness, the anxiety, the almost-uncomfortable sincerity. Meanwhile, the randomness of the recorded-over cassette’s pops and hisses could be heard as an accidental precursor to the unplanned abstractions that would later elevate Wilco to the realm of America’s most innovative rock bands. So just as the early take on “Someone Else’s Song” catches a vulnerable songwriter at an especially vulnerable moment, its overall message is resolute, with Tweedy spinning his referential concerns into confidence: “You can’t stop me, I want you to know/ I know it sounds like someone else’s song, from a long time ago.”
Both Alpha Mike Foxtrot and the 38-song What’s Your 20? best-of compilation offer compelling timelines of Wilco’s unlikely evolution from somewhat-generic roots rockers, to quasi-pop studio mad men, to soothsaying rock’n’roll deconstructionists, to spasmodic guitar adventurers, to epiphanic jammers, to a comfortable, if less exciting, combination of all those previous guises. What’s Your 20? is for the neophytes—it’s a very reasonable place to start for future generations facing down Wilco’s full catalog on Spotify. Alpha is for the die-hards, the ones who may have a yellowing ticket stub from the band’s fall 2001 tour in a drawer somewhere, who know all the words without thinking, who want to live through this band once again, but in a skewed, newish way.
Every track isn’t some kind of lost classic, and not just because every track has already been released in some form, whether as a B-side, on a soundtrack, or via the band’s website. Even Tweedy himself acknowledges some of the lesser moments here with off-the-cuff, generally-on-point track-by-track liner notes: He describes a scattershot remix of Summerteeth’s “A Shot in the Arm” by David Kahne (aka the guy who rejected Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and dropped Wilco from Reprise Records) as “a dated mess [that] doesn’t have anything to do with the feeling that I had about the song,” and confesses that the horny, cringe-worthy “Old Maid” is drummer “Glenn Kotche’s least favorite song in the entire Wilco oeuvre.” Running nearly five hours, Alpha plays like a clearinghouse more than a finely-edited set but, largely thanks to its bevy of well-chosen live tracks, its sidelong view of Wilco is worth a peek.
Though Tweedy first gained attention as an acolyte of classic country and folk, it’s his penchant for upending convention that has proven to be most enduring. This restlessness was there from the beginning; though Uncle Tupelo were known for their reverence to songwriting tradition, they also weren’t afraid to bust out a blitzing punk version of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”—or a country take on the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog”. Alpha highlights this rip-‘em-up aesthetic early on with two versions of the small-town ode “Passenger Side”, from Wilco’s 1995 debut, A.M.; the first jangles and twangs tastefully while the second turns the song into a pop-punk screecher in the Replacements mold.
This contrarian strategy—taking a quiet song and exploding it live, or vice versa—offered a way for Wilco to make their early songs, along with the band itself, more slippery and less susceptible to pigeonholing. Another great example of this from Alpha is an aching guitar-and-piano take on A.M.’s “Box of Letters”, which reveals the hurt underneath the kiss-off’s biting album version while reminding us of the warmth of Tweedy’s determined shrug of a voice. Eventually, the band figured out how to combine its multiple musical personalities within one song as Tweedy delved further into himself to tease-out a fresh kind of indirect writing based on improvisation and subconscious connection.
“For a long time, I thought if I wrote a song that anybody could sing, I’d succeeded,” he told The Chicago Reader in 2004. “Then I started losing interest in that and started feeling like I wanted to write stuff that only makes sense if I sing it.” A watershed example of this approach is Summerteeth’s “Via Chicago”, which morphs from a downtrodden ballad to a tumbling feedback squall while Tweedy nonchalantly dreams of murder. It’s not a Bob Dylan song, or a Neil Young song, or a Tom Petty song. It is a Jeff Tweedy song, a Wilco song. The track is rightly included in What’s Your 20?, though the early demo of it featured on Alpha is just a static, stepping-stone take that Tweedy himself calls “sad and miserable.”
A huge factor going into Wilco’s ever-changing sound throughout their first decade was the band’s ever-changing lineup. For instance, the change from Summerteeth’s maximalism to the focused austerity of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot can in part be attributed to the band recruiting known experimenter Jim O’Rourke to mix Foxtrot at the same time as they were losing touch with multi-instrumentalist, producer, and overdub impresario Jay Bennett. Later on, Bennett’s ouster would lead Tweedy to flex his lead-guitar muscle on the brilliant A Ghost Is Born. And it’s this middle period filled with personnel switches and personal tumult—Summerteeth, Foxtrot, and Ghost—that still stands as their greatest work.
Considering Foxtrot’s lofty status within the history of Wilco—along with its sign-of-the-times label drama, it’s still their best-selling album by a wide margin—it is somewhat underrepresented on Alpha. The box set boasts a few relatively well-known outtakes, but in light of Foxtrot’s painstaking gestation, which had the band trying songs out in many different styles to see what stuck, it would have been interesting to hear a few previously unreleased attempts at those beloved tracks.
The material culled from Wilco’s ambitious and fruitful time making and playing Ghost is more substantial, peaking with three consecutive 2004 live tracks featuring their fleshed-out six-man incarnation, which remains intact to this day: 10-minute motorik blast “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”, eerie deal-with-the-devil update “Hell Is Chrome”, and the monolithic and bipolar “At Least That’s What You Said” all spotlight Tweedy’s stunning distorted guitar work—oddly one of the band’s most underutilized assets—which combines the majesty of Television’s Marquee Moon with the spontaneity of free jazz great Albert Ayler. The sheer emotional audacity of these solos cannot be overstated; 21st-century rock guitar does not get better than this. After figuring out how to get the most out of abstracting his lyrics and arrangements on Foxtrot, Tweedy did himself one better by eliminating language altogether on large swaths of Ghost, replacing it with six-string bursts that said just as much, if not more.
Whereas material from the first five Wilco albums make up the lion’s share of Alpha, the band’s last three records are only represented by about a dozen tracks, which seems about right. Because while those albums, especially 2007’s earthy Sky Blue Sky, contain great individual songs, they don’t coalesce the way Wilco’s best albums do. Perhaps the stability of their lineup has made it harder for them to make exciting left turns, or maybe Tweedy grew tired of constantly pushing himself and his audience to uncomfortable places. Even the singer himself recently admitted that their last record, 2011’s The Whole Love, “was taken for granted a little bit, not necessarily by critics, maybe by ourselves.” After 20 years of Wilco, Tweedy is seemingly no longer vexed by the prospect of overcoming someone else’s song—though surpassing his own is only getting tougher.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1HiQnSD