The Wilco You Weren’t Supposed to Hear

YHF Demos (aka, “The Basement Tapes”)

(Unreleased Bootleg MP3s)

How the 21 tracks that comprise the YHF Demos were surreptitiously swiped from the studio and made available over the Internet is certainly a story in itself. Unfortunately I am not in a position to relate that tale. I am merely a closet Wilco fan (I do have a T-shirt, which I recently wore to an old-time fiddler’s convention). I couldn’t tell you Jeff Tweedy’s favorite color; I don’t even know the names of all his band mates. Furthermore, I don’t listen to Art Bell, haven’t camped out near Area 51, nor have I tracked Big Foot. In my estimation Oswald acted alone. So don’t look to this article for theories or insights into where the YHF Demoscame from or how they were extricated. I don’t want to know. They have floated around cyberspace for about year. Reports of a “rare Australian import”, which includes some of the previously unreleased tracks found on the Demos, have been sighted on eBay. For whatever reason, providence saw fit to lay a copy of the Demos in my lap. At a relaxed distance, in a part of the country where Wilco seldom travels, I can play dumb to all that fan chatter and, taking a cue from John Crowe Ransom, use a little “formal criticism” to evaluate the Demos in their own context.

Of course, it’s impossible to discuss the Demos without giving some regard to the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, album that emerged from them. Alternate versions of seven of the Yankee tracks are included in this mix. As expected, these are basic pre-production recordings, though the mixes of the bittersweet “Reservations” and the dark but whimsical “Heavy Metal Drummer” sound like the finished product, minus Jim O’Rourke’s swirl of short-wave static and electronica. To my disappointment, two of the strongest pieces on the final draft — “Radio Cure” and “Pot Kettle Black” — are not included in rough form here. But that might be a clue to understanding the nature of the Demos.

In 2001 S. Renee Dechert wrote an extensive review of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot for PopMatters, forwarding the thesis that, conceptually, the album reflects the difficulties and uncertainties of human communication. O’Rourke’s weird soundscapes not only envelope but deliberately obscure Jeff Tweedy’s slurred lyrics. Similarly, on Summerteeth (1999) the sunny (“summer”) songs are shadowed and undermined by their caustic (“teeth”) words. Whether consciously or not it seems that Wilco’s finished albums follow this dialectical pattern. “Radio Cure” and “Pot Kettle Black” fit onto Yankee Hotel Foxtrot because they complemented the thematic issues suggested in Dechert’s article; they seem to have been written specifically for that album. But the Demos unveil a different dynamic.

Musical Mystery Tour

Whoever put this collection together either deliberately or subconsciously arranged the songs in a thematic order that makes perfectly good sense. Five of the first six tracks are stripped-down versions of songs from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. These mixes give the listener samples of the working models of these songs prior to O’Rourke’s sonic embellishments. “I’m the Man Who Loves You”, for example, is devoid of its edgy, nod-to-Neil Young guitar leads and punchy horn section, and is driven entirely by acoustic slides. The first of two variants of “Kamera” also appears in this section, with a galloping text that stretches the limits of Tweedy’s vocal range.

Tracks seven through 11, the most intriguing sequence of the Demos, consist of songs that did not make it the final cut for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. These include two pairs: “Alone” and “Nothing Up My Sleeve” share similar chord progressions and are both up tempo, though melancholy in subject matter. “Venus Stopped the Train” and “Rhythm” (aka, “Cars Can’t Escape”) feature hollow, echoing vocals and stark piano accompaniment. They fall in the dead center of the collection and form an important break in the pace and mood of the album — more about that to follow.

“Poor Places” is the 12th track, and the version here is substantially different from the now famous mix that brought Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to its electro-magnetic crescendo. Again, the difference in mood is striking; this mix is considerably loose compared the building tension of the official version. From there the Demos move through more unreleased tracks, including three instrumental fragments. The first of these is a gorgeous piano suite suitable for a commencement or wedding march; the other two are variations on a funk jam, drenched in Jay Bennett’s mellotron swells.

Coming down the home stretch, the Demos finish with four alternate versions of previous tracks in the collection. The standout here is the raucous, hard rock mix of “Kamera” displaying some of Tweedy’s most blistering guitar work — a precursor to his energetic work-outs on the newly-released A Ghost is Born. Minus the mixing board gimmickry, Wilco sounds like here like an organic, must-see-live band. The drums, subordinated in O’Rourke’s sound scheme, come crashing through with boisterous bombasts.

Thus, the Demos complete four distinct and coherent song cycles, not unlike the four movements of a symphony. Not only do these sets follow a thematic logic; they also convey a more direct sense of mood and matter than is typical of Wilco.

This Bird Has Flown

I concur with Dechert’s observations that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is primarily about communication breakdown. As mentioned above, the heavy-handed use of studio effects on that album created a dense layer of atmosphere through which Tweedy’s voice and messages were obscured — not unlike the static that interferes with amplitude modulated radio signals. We may also conjecture (please pardon the extrapolation, Mr. Ransom) that as Tweedy became more immersed in the CONET Project and began to view short-wave communication as a potential album motif, the track list for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was edited to fit the emerging theme (for those interested in the more sinister aspects of the airwaves, visit Simon Mason’s Short Wave Espionage site, which includes credits for Wilco’s use of YHF; which, by the way, is at 3840 on your short-wave dial).

However, miscommunication is not the only theme on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. A more pervasive concept that seems to haunt the whole Wilco catalogue is the issue of infidelity. We hear it on Summerteeth:

There are dreams we might have shared and
I still care and I still love you
But you know how
I’ve been untrue (from “Pieholden Suite”)

Infidelity and betrayal are subjects as old as the hills, especially here in North America. One of the earliest songs in the colonial canon was “The Coo Coo Bird”. An English import, the song was popular in both the African American and Anglo-Irish communities. The ballad has no plot or direction; it is a stream of consciousness depicting various shapes of distrust and disloyalty — within the speaker as well as those around him (the song even views birds and horses with suspicion). One reason “The Coo Coo Bird” has survived and is still played after five generations is that it strikes at the most fundamental fears that humans share — betrayal and abandonment.

Time and again Tweedy relates these fears on the Demos. Those acquainted with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot know the oft-repeated line, “what was I thinking when I let go of you?” But consider these samples of bitter gems from the unreleased tracks:

Like I’m supposed to be
Alone, lonely, alone
Like I’m supposed to be (from “Alone”)

So I tap my glass and nod my chin
And wonder who you’ve been in rhythm with (from “Rhythm”)

It’s not that I don’t care at all
We lost touch so long ago
It may be our anniversary
But I, I wouldn’t really know (from “Nothing Up My Sleeve”)

By far the most devastating song on the Demos is “Venus Stopped the Train”, a track surely destined for most acclaimed in Wilco’s unpublished portfolio. It appears to be the tale of a runaway (or homeless) girl, perhaps a prostitute. But apart from the revelation that her father “reached out to her / when her mother slept”, we aren’t fed lurid details. Instead, Tweedy and Jay Bennett (who shared credits for this song) express her anxieties in abstractions that are vastly more chilling:

Satellites were spinning
In outer space
They televised her feelings
While the light
The light struck terror

A creaky, pedal-laden piano adds to the solemnity of this sympathetic portrait of this ultimate symbol of infidelity. After stating “I kept my distance” Tweedy sings, “I’m polite to her / I reached my soft hand out to her…” and you can feel the empathy as well as the irony in his voice.

The Demos hint to us there was a bridge between Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. However, a select few songs were allowed to cross, and it appears that only those suited to both the subject matter and Tweedy’s evolving sonic considerations made the cut.

Tweedy Bird

One of the reasons Wilco is America’s foremost pop/rock band is its unassuming lead singer Jeff Tweedy. He personifies the “other America” that the rest of the world isn’t so aware of — he’s no cowboy, and he really doesn’t seem intent on world domination. In fact, he comes across as the unsure type. This resonates with the disaffected, the underdogs. But what is more, Tweedy is able to appeal to our most treasured pop sensibilities without sounding like a fraud. Throughout the Demos he deftly reminds us of our rock heroes: Tom Petty (“Not For the Season”); Jeff Lynne (“Alone”); Harrison & McCartney (“Nothing Up My Sleeve”) and Lennon (“Rhythm”); and we could almost mistake him for a young Van Morrison on “Won’t Let You Down.”

Yet, it is Tweedy who comes across through and through — a guy with chronic migraines who got hooked on painkillers; a guy who, according to his wife, can’t order a pizza without agonizing over it (Ann Powers, The Guide). We love people like that; we wouldn’t want to see them on the silver screen, but we like for them to speak to us through the speakers (even if “in code”) to remind us that it’s alright to not be bigger than life.

If nothing else, the YHF Demos show us that, behind all the bells and whistles, Wilco is still a group of guys (even if I can’t name them all) who still have to re-tune their guitars and put their pants on one leg at a time.