Wilco Revisited | Alpha Mike Foxtrot & What’s Your 20? Reviewed

FFS For Folk's Sake Wilco band portrait

Alpha Mike Foxtrot: Rare Tracks 1994-2014
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­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­What’s Your 20? Essential Tracks 1994-2014

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­The end of 2014 gives us a grand old gift from one of America’s very finest. For those who love Wilco comes the definitive and essential rarities set Alpha Mike Foxtrot (the title a wonderful adaptation of the name of Wilco’s finest ever achievement Yankee Hotel Foxtrot). The other release, a best of collection, which is aimed more at the uninitiated, is a wonderful entranceway into the world of a band that you’d have to say is an utterly essential part of modern pop rock.

So, to Alpha Mike Foxtrot. It collects 77 tracks and a gorgeous little booklet, and covers the band’s 20 year history since they appeared from the ashes of Jeff Tweedy’s earlier alt-country band Uncle Tupelo. Wilco have morphed over the years, changing their sound and their line-up several times, but you don’t need to get too far into disc one of this set to hear the signs of something special. Put simply, Wilco haven’t lived this long from luck. A band’s longevity these days (in days of such fickle commercial pop and celebrity) is genuinely down to quality, of song writing, of musicianship and of live performance. Through all three of these Wilco have built up a remarkably loyal and passionate fan base. Wilco are mentioned on American comedies (Tweedy even appearing in Parks and Recreation), seem to endlessly tour their homeland and have reliably released an album every two or three years over the course of their 20 years. This collection is made up of alternative versions, live tracks, b-­sides, demos and anything else the vaults could rustle up that demonstrated the band’s range, versatility and incredible shared wealth of pleasure, between both band and audience.

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Wilco began life with an alt-country sound, clearly following on from Uncle Tupelo, and the sound of 1995 debut A.M. was soon outdated. They need to grow, and soon did on their breakthrough double album Being There. By the time of 1999’s Summerteeth the band was expressing some major alternative guitar rock chops. The sound was no longer constrained by its country roots; pop, rock and even electronic tinges were encompassed to augment the band’s sonic dabbling. Wilco are the opposite of most modern bands, making careers (mostly that don’t last, of course) on one or two tracks. Wilco have always been about the album. As long as bands like this one still exist the album will remain ever the most valuable format. Their albums are what the fans wait for, not a song here and there. On their fourth record Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, surely one of the all time classics, the band had lost their mind and delved into a perfect world of pop and sonic experimentation. The production by Jim O’Rourke was spectacular in how it complimented the songs and made them truly unique. The guitar solos were mind blowing, the little piano flourishes off the chart, and every song was perfectly sculpted. It sounded as close to The Beatles as maybe anyone had come, for both quality and the perfect pop landscape it possessed. It was also the sound of a major rift, and the band in that incarnation falling completely apart. Wilco had never sounded better, but also never more broken. Take from that what you will, but the band couldn’t have survived like that. Jay Bennett had to go, the line up suffered a massive overhaul and the sound once more changed. In fact, Tweedy took over the lead guitar for 2004’s A Ghost Is Born. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, as it hadn’t been previously witnessed on this scale, he totally blew everyone away. His Neil Young-­esque solos were something astonishing.

2007’s Sky Blue Sky was something of a dip in form, though it contained some stunning tracks – simply failing to maintain that standard for the whole album, and 2009’s Wilco (The Album) was too poppy and self­-reflective. 2011’s The Whole Love was closer to what we had grown to love about Wilco, and was the band’s best record in seven years. The band have always worked hard, putting out a great catalogue and touring like mad before each time reuniting in their own studio loft to go at it all over again.

You can hear the progression too over this collection, as the opening tracks of disc two are decidedly heavier and Tweedy even seems to do his best Cobain impression on ‘Passenger Side’ – a song that featured early on the first disc in pared-down demo form. The two versions are scarcely recognisable. This disc certainly shows Wilco coming to life in a different way to previously, and the sound was becoming much more developed. There is exploration that didn’t seem possible before, as sonically the band started to push boundaries and edge toward greatness. All kinds of strange electronic sounds had started to creep into and help define the band’s tracks. Tweedy’s songwriting seemed to take the step up to the next level – somewhere occupied by only few – and he challenged himself, his concepts of music, audience, sound, and even simply what a pop song was and could achieve. It shows, and the band has never been more exciting than in this period, which is a highly memorable and special time, for the band and its fan base. 1999’s Summerteeth was the first foray into a deeper sonic understanding and it stands as Wilco’s most beautiful record by that stage.

If not before, then by the time you reach the live take of ‘Spiders (Kidsmoke)’ on disc three you realise this is not the same band from disc one. In fact, their evolution is astonishing. The furious solo guitar work and incessant Krautrock beat lasting ten minutes is like being truly hypnotised. It’s brutal and sublime, and showcases Wilco at their very best. It seems undeniable that disc three shows Wilco at their peak, though disc four also shares some material from Summerteeth, YHF and A Ghost Is Born, which might be most fans’ favourite three records. Disc four is more of the same, though by this stage of the band’s career things have become settled, comfortable and middle age has set in. That isn’t to say it isn’t good, it’s also brilliant, there is just a slightly dimmer spark than the one that fuelled some of the energy and inspiration of those middle years. Wilco are far from done, and who knows what comes next, but if sifting through these tracks and many others bears any kind of inspirational fruit then the band’s next move could prove to be thrilling. On the evidence of the most recent studio album the act is still open to exploration and deep playfulness whilst remaining true to what it has always been about – genuine love of music.

The band and a fan base as loyal and loving as anyone else’s know that this is something worth cherishing. If you can think of a band that changed more over a ten year period than Wilco did in their first decade it would be somewhat surprising (perhaps apart from Radiohead). Somehow, and the most incredible feat of all though, is that for all the changing there is a sense that the band has always stayed true to its roots and only explored around that, never abandoning who they are, what they stands for and what they wants music to achieve for all of us. This collection is one hell of a fun time, never gets boring and truly represents that Wilco are a band to treasure. The balance here, between the tender, the loud and raucous and the mid-tempo tracks is sublime. It’s not hard to see why the band is both loved by their audience and mostly critically revered. Tweedy is a great songwriter surrounded by not just competent musicians, but ones that can turn songs into powerful spells. Some of the recordings have noise, rustling sounds, voices, that make you feel even closer to Tweedy and the songs. It’s personal to see a band from this view, to get even closer to it than you had before. The four- disc collection is one of the best rarity sets to be released in some time. These 77 tracks are the perfect gift for a Wilco fan this Christmas, but also a wonderful companion over the winter months or to a fan of the band, any time, any place.

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As for What’s Your 20?, well, Wilco are definitely an act that have earned the right to release a best of, which let’s be frank most acts haven’t. It isn’t cashing in on their success or popularity as much as it is documenting the band’s history and providing potential new fans with a gateway to their music. The treat for the existing fans is the rarities set, for newcomers it is surely this. It’s a good representation of the last 20 years, quite simply a ‘must-­buy’. Somewhat expectedly, the majority of this record is taken from the band’s first ten years. There was some good material from the more recent albums, but it isn’t those that best depict the band and its journey, or even act as a gateway to understanding what the band is all about. Every album the band has made is worth checking out, though some are more disappointing than others. All are better than much of the music that somehow filters through the gates and into the public’s consciousness these days.

Wilco are an ‘album’ band and this collection can’t quite show that, but hearing how many good tracks there are here would surely lend any new listener to further curiosity about those very records. The majority of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is here. It’s no surprise. What is, however, is how anyone picked six of those 11 tracks and left the other five behind. A Ghost Is Born is a similar story, but is somehow pared down to a four-track showing here. The early days receive a heavy focus, to show how the band started and what they sounded like, and how they seemed to blossom from one album to the next – through various line up shake ups, problems with record companies and even health issues. It all led to a seemingly never ending journey with changes helping inspire Tweedy and company.

It is by no means the perfect best of compilation, but it’s honest, it’s filled with beauty and magic as so few bands would truly be able to fill such a collection, and it is a reminder for anyone that might have forgotten just how many good songs this band has created. It’s hard not to wonder about what the band will do next. If you buy either of these releases this Christmas the likelihood is that you will eagerly await news of the next Wilco record, a band well worth following and having in your days, for their reliability, their creativity and their overwhelming sense of being a band for the people. Wilco, here is to the next 20 years, for surely they will mean growing old gracefully, with style, and another collection of brilliant songs for anyone who has the good sense to listen and share the experience. Wilco are alive and kicking. Long live Wilco!

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