Sunday, July 11, 2004

Zebra Hotel Foxtrot

I picked up the new Wilco album, A Ghost Is Born, about a week ago, and about all I can say about it so far is that it looks like it's a grower. At least, I hope it's a grower, that its pleasures will slowly reveal themselves through repeated listening. The fact that I haven't bothered to do any repeated listening has to be a bit telling, though. I don't love it, and I don't hate it. It's just sort of there, and not that interesting. In a couple of places -- notably, "Spiders (Kidsmoke)", which isn't half the song it was in its earlier live incarnations -- Jeff Tweedy clearly overworked the material until he'd beaten the original charm out of it. Elsewhere, he just makes a couple of bizarre decisions, such as appending 12 minutes of monotonous feedback hum to the end of the penultimate track, "Less Than You Think". I've read that this bit is meant to convey the sensation of the migranes that Tweedy suffers from. While I'm all for an artist being able to use his work to talk about the significant things in his life, why would he literally try to give his fans a headache?

Still, all this hasn't kept the album from garnering some rave reviews (though one suspects that these might be due to leftover goodwill from the last album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and to a tendency among critics to automatically praise "artistic" albums like this rather than look like they don't understand them). And it didn't stop the recent Toronto show from selling out in 36 seconds. And I do have to say that the last track, "The Late Greats", is catchier than Spanish influenza.

However, if the new album's just not doing it for you, you may want to fire up your favorite file-sharing program and compile this ersatz alternative followup album to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which consists of demos, b-sides, compilation cuts, and fan-only tracks released during or after the YHF era. Call it Zebra Hotel Foxtrot if you like. It's more accessible, the rockers rock harder, the ballads are more heart-wrenching, and it's just a lot more fun.

1. "Not for the Season"
Before the evolution of "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" revealed how drastically Tweedy could overwork a perfectly good song, there was this one from the YHF demos. A radically different take called "Laminated Cat" appears on the Loose Fur side-project album, but as with "Spiders", the song is far more likable when it's shorter, rawer, and devoid of the influence of producer Jim O'Rourke. It usually appears as the last track of the demo compilation, but as an upbeat rocker, it's a great opener here, kicking things off with a "one-two-three-four" count-in.

2. "Alone"
Available in two different versions on the YHF demos, this song is also available in a more produced version called "Shaking Sugar" on the album The Palace at 4 A.M.", which was released by former bandmember Jay Bennett and collaborator Edward Burch after he was turfed from the Wilco during the making of YHF. (Bennett didn't lose any time; he put Palace out on the very same day YHF was released.) Either of the two versions is fine; they aren't much different. Pick the one you like better.

3. "Nothing up My Sleeve"
A folky guitar-strumming tune with a propulsive pitter-patter beat, this track from the YHF demos is just the song for that certain someone you're long past sending out love songs to: It's not that I don't care anymore / We lost touch so long ago / It may be our anniversary / But I, I wouldn't really know.

4. "Venus Stopped the Train"
Another one from the YHF demos rerecorded by Bennett/Burch for The Palace at 4 A.M.", the later version provides an example of how Jay Bennett is just as good as Jeff Tweedy at overworking a tune. Just piano and voice (save for a sampled rainstorm intro), the original demo version here is simple, devastating, and perfect.

5. "Rhythm"
How do you follow a simple, devastating, perfect piano-based tune? With another one that's all those things, but even more so. The juxtaposition of "Venus" with this track on the YHF demos is either fortuitous or genius, and one dares not tamper with it. Note that the official title, "Cars Can't Escape", was given with the release of the Wilco documentary I Am Trying to Break your Heart and that Wilco later made a more-finished version of the song available at their website under this title, but as usual, the demo version is the better one. If you're searching on a file-sharing program, look under "Rhythm", the original title.

6. "Won't Let You Down"
Those bewildered by Wilco's recent musical direction will welcome this throwback to the days of Being There. No bleeps, no bloops, just straightahead alt-country-flavoured rock, courtesy of the YHF demos.

7. "Let Me Come Home"
You'll notice the YHF demo tracks have been lumped together here, and that's no accident; it's an attempt to preserve some continuity and keep this compilation sounding a little more album-like. This one's not from the demos, per se -- it's taken from the Amos House Collection, Vol. 3 compilation -- but the lyrics are founded upon a pretty little piece of music found there known as "Instrumental 1".

8. "Old Maid"
From the You Can Never Go Fast Enough compilation, a tribute to the cult film Two-Lane Blacktop, this piano ditty wouldn't have been out of place on Wilco's first album, A.M. More comfort music for those bewildered by the new Wilco.

9. "Woodgrain"
For the faithful who actually bothered to buy a copy of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot after it had been floating around on the internet, Wilco made a fan-only EP called More Like the Moon available for download from their website. The first two tracks, "Camera" and "Handshake Drugs", are available on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born, respectively, albeit in different forms. This, the third of the More Like the Moon tracks, is a simple folky guitar number with some YHF-style electronic textures.

10. "A Magazine Called Sunset"
It's obvious that Jay Bennett was still in the band for this one. Hearkening back to the pop mastery of Summerteeth, "Magazine" is covered in keyboards, vibes, and Bennett's Brian-Wilson style instrumental confection. This one's the fourth track on More Like the Moon -- you'll see an attempt to preserve the tracklisting for the sake of continuity here -- but a couple of just-as-finished versions are available on the YHF demos. As before, pick the one you like best. It's a toss-up between the first one on the YHF demos and the one from More Like the Moon for me.

11. "Bob Dylan's 49th Beard"
A live staple, this one finally got its official release on the fan-only EP. (Let's hope that recent touring favorite "Kicking Television", which was left off A Ghost Is Born, likewise pops up at some point.) This one has a little of the "Mermaid Avenue flavour. Speaking of which, Mermaid outtake "When the Roses Bloom Again" and its companion on the Chelsea Walls soundtrack, "Promising", could have made this compilation, but they're not really of the YHF era. "When the Roses Bloom Again" belongs with the Mermaid stuff, and "Promising" is an A.M. outtake. Plus, this compilation doesn't really need any more slower tunes, and the thirteen tracks here -- running a total of 42:08 -- are quite enough for an album.

12. "More Like the Moon"
If you didn't want to call this compilation Zebra Hotel Foxtrot -- and you needn't, because it was just a joke -- you'd do well to call it More Like the Moon if only because the fan-only EP of that name came with three lovely choices of downloadable album covers in PDF format. One of them would look quite handsome on this compilation. As for the title track itself, it's lovely, sedate, and at six minutes in length, actually a little bit boring. Some nice Spanish-style guitar, though, and it's well worth including.

13. "The Good Part"
This up-tempo b-side from the "War on War" single would have also worked well as the opener, but putting it as the closer gives the tracklisting a nice sardonic edge; after all, if you yield to the lyrics' cajoling to get to the good part and skip ahead, the album will be over. Plus, it's a welcome kick in the pants after the last track, the Hawaiian-flavoured intro is suggestive of the sun going down in the west, the sampled crowd noises are suggestive of an encore, and the song ends on a fat, crashing, satisfying chord that finishes the album nicely.


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