Sunday, May 13, 2007

Classic Bootleg Series Vol. 10: Wilco - The Yankee Hotel Foxtrot Demos

With Wilco's new record, Sky Blue Sky, set for release this week, selecting the next entry in our series was (for once) a no-brainer.

The sessions that produced Wilco's pivotal Yankee Hotel Foxtrot album -- as infamously documented in Sam Jones' 2002 film, I Am Trying To Break Your Heart -- were a perfect storm of dysfunction. After delivering the brilliant dose of infectious, sun-dappled pop that was 1999's Summerteeth, the band embarked in a new and far more challenging direction that involved not just the writing of great songs, but an almost maniacal process of tearing down and reconstructing each one, sometimes over and over again, until -- after literally hundreds of hours in the studio -- some elusive, alchemic result finally revealed itself. Even a band in the best of mental health would have been stretched to its limits by this routine. And at the time, Wilco was anything but. Jay Bennett, a supremely gifted musician and songwriter with an equally pompous and irritating personality, had tired of playing second fiddle to Jeff Tweedy and was making a calculated power grab, alienating not just Tweedy but the rest of his bandmates in the process. Tweedy, meanwhile, already pathologically averse to confrontation, was at his absolute personal low point, firmly in the clutches of an anxiety disorder, chronic migraine headaches and an attendent addiction to prescription painkillers that had him struggling to maintain some semblance of control, and not just over his band.

What's most astonishing about the YHF sessions, then, is not that they were so fractious, but that they produced, in the midst of all that simmering acrimony and discomfort, such a wealth of gorgeous and stunningly inspired music. There is evidence enough of that in the record itself, which I consider to be Wilco's masterpiece and among the finest releases of the last 20 years. But what casual fans may not know is that the tracks that ended up on YHF represent only a small fraction of what the band recorded in this period.

The so-called "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot Demos" -- actually consisting of both true demos and completed-but-discarded studio tracks from the YHF sessions -- have been called "the great lost Wilco album." In fact, it sometimes seems that these recordings have inspired as much fawning praise from critics as the officially-released album.

The tracks fall into two basic categories. First, there are early, sometimes radically different versions of songs that ended up on the record. Indeed, fans who aren't wild about the sonic experimentation on YHF can find more straightforward renditions of some of the songs here.

Second, and even more stunning, are the songs that didn't make the cut at all, a number of them as good as just about anything in the Wilco catalog. It's not hard to guess why pop gems like "Magazine Called Sunset," "Alone" and "Nothing Up My Sleeve," all of which would have been right at home on Summerteeth, didn't fit in with what Tweedy was trying to accomplish with YHF, but that doesn't make them any less wonderful. "Not For The Season" is terrific, too, and was a longtime staple of Wilco's live set (they still bust it out on occasion), but it didn't make the grade either, perhaps because Tweedy had other plans for the song. (It ended up, sapped of most of its passion, as "Laminated Cat" on the first album by Tweedy's Loose Fur side project.) And "Will Not Let You Down" sounds like Wilco brought Exile-era Keith Richards in as a ringer one day -- it's rollicking fun, even if it had no natural place on YHF.

Yet, the omission of two of these songs from YHF defies explanation. "Cars Can't Escape" is one of Wilco's loveliest ballads, and although the band gave it away online to anyone who purchased YHF, and even toss it into their live setlist every now and then, they have never treated it as much more than a throw-away. I don't care -- it's among my all-time favorite Wilco songs.

But if these recordings do comprise some sort of alternate-universe classic, then "Venus Stop The Train" is THE great lost Wilco track. Achingly beautiful and hauntingly produced, it would have been an absolute highlight of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and consistent in every way with the sound and ethos of that classic record. Instead, it has never been released, or performed live. Not even once. Until that far-off day when a career-spanning Wilco box set sees the light of day, this is the only way you'll ever hear this positively gorgeous song.


Artwork (low resolution -- if you have better, please send it along):

01 I Am Trying To Break Your Heart
02 Ashes of American Flags
03 I'm The Man Who Loves You
04 Magazine Called Sunset
05 Reservations
06 Kamera
07 Not For The Season
08 Alone
09 Nothing Up My Sleeve
10 Venus Stop The Train
11 Car's Can't Escape (piano demo)
12 Poor Places
13 Will Not Let You Down
14 Heavy Metal Drummer
15 Instrumental No. 1
16 Instrumental No. 2
17 Instrumental No. 2 (take 2)
18 Kamera (alternate version)
19 Magazine Called Sunset (alternate version)
20 Alone (alternate version)
21 Not For The Season (alternate version)

And a bonus track, because the collection is simply incomplete without it:

22 Cars Can't Escape (finished studio version)

Finally, this isn't even all of it. Other tracks recorded during the YHF sessions but never released -- some of which circulate on a separate bootleg called The YHF Engineer Demos -- include "Corduroy Cutoff Girl" ("Instrumental No. 2" above, with lyrics added), an early version of "Handshake Drugs" (later re-worked and released on the follow-up to YHF, 2004's A Ghost Is Born), "The Good Part" (which returned to the Wilco setlist in 2006 and briefly looked like it was headed for Sky Blue Sky) and still other, entirely different versions of many of the YHF tracks. Perhaps a worthwhile subject for another day.