by Michael Goldberg
Monday, July 29, 2002
Wilco's "Basement Tapes"
The "YHF Demos" are the great lost Wilco album now if only someone would release them.
The ink that says "Wilco YHF Demos" is slightly smeared on the home-printed white cover of the CD that arrived the other day. The 21 songs on this "Basement Tapes" CD, sent from a friend, were downloaded as MP3 files from some Web location.
I don't use the phrase "Basement Tapes" lightly. It's an intentional reference to the recordings Bob Dylan and The Band made up in Woodstock in the late '60s. At an hour and 15 minutes, this is Yankee Hotel Foxtrot as a two-record set. But it's also much more expansive, and not just because of length. It is an amazing album, and I certainly hope that Wilco will choose to release it. I find it captivating in a way that the official album isn't probably due to the inclusion of "Venus Stop the Train" and some others that didn't make it onto the completed album. But also because, from start to finish, it works as an album, as a body of work that I want to hear all the way from track one a version of "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" through an alternate take of "Not for the Season."
With Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Jeff Tweedy drew a line in the sand. No, he was not that alt-country guy you wanted him to be. If you thought Summerteeth was just a diversion, think again, he seemed to be saying. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is, perhaps, his way of declaring himself a major artist, as daring as those who clearly have inspired him, including The Beatles and Brian Wilson. An artist not content to work within the established structures and sounds that define musical genres.
So he started fucking with the material, adding odd sounds, deconstructing songs, creating a kind of art piece. And he was successful. The album is good, and the world now sees him as a very different kind of artist than they did before.
Only, for me, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot turned out to be one of those albums that you appreciate intellectually, that you know is "good" and that you should like, only you never seem to play it. Or you play a couple of songs, but don't listen through from start to finish. Well, don't know about you, maybe you played your copy to death, but I've hardly played mine since my initial attempts to dig into it.
I must add that, because of all the drama surrounding the official album record company politics that found one AOL Time Warner label dropping the band while another signed them up my initial experience of the album was a letdown.
The YHF demos are something else. With no real expectations, I put the CD in my car stereo on my way home from the post office the other day, and I've been playing it incessantly ever since. It's hard to generalize, but a lot of this album seems to be lamenting a romance that didn't work out; beyond that, Tweedy seems to be catching the disillusionment that many feel now both disillusionment and nostalgia for a past that we likely recall via romanticized memories ("Heavy Metal Drummer"). "I miss the innocence I've known/ Playing Kiss covers, beautiful and stoned," he sings in "Heavy Metal Drummer," a different version of the song that appeared on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
It's not that these demos are stripped down. They're not (or at least some of them aren't), and thus they feel more organic. It's just that, for the most part, the arrangements are more... traditional. "Alone," for example, a song that didn't make it onto the official album, rocks along to an old-time melody and some honky-tonk. It has the feel of Dylan and The Band doing "Don't Ya Tell Henry."
"Nothing Up My Sleeve," also not on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, is a folk-rocker with double-tracked vocals, just a single acoustic guitar for accompaniment and a Beatles-esque melody. Won't Let You Down is like the Rolling Stones doing country-rock. The lyric is simple, almost a cliché, only it's not, because of the way Tweedy sings it. His voice is scratchy, a bit frail, echoing Jagger from the Stones' Beggar's Banquet days. He makes the song's sentiment sound like it's being expressed for the first time. "When you're getting older/ The weight will lift from your shoulders/ There's one thing to remember/ I'm not gone." And then into the chorus: "I won't ever let you down/ I won't ever let you down... I promise..."
Tweedy sounds like he means it on every song, but there's something more low-key throughout about his vocals, like he's having fun trying out different voices. And over the course of the18 songs that have vocals, there's a feeling of intimacy. This isn't the artist making "ART," it's just a passionate singer who writes moving songs getting them down on tape. But it's also a self-conscious artist experimenting within traditional song structures, rather than trying to break them down.
There are three instrumentals (well, two, and an alternate take). The first is a pretty interlude with piano and strings, a gentle melody that repeats again and again. The second is a kind of country-honk affair, strummed acoustic guitars and backwoods rhythms, that suddenly breaks open into a kind of Abbey Road-styled bridge with drums, synths and God knows what else. The alternate take of that second one is an even trippier piece that takes me back to The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour.
The piano-based ballad "Venus Stop the Train" is another stunner. "I kept my distance. 'cause she fell in love with everyone," Tweedy sings. "Smoking grass and taking Christmas trees/ She fell in love with me." "Rhythm" is just Tweedy singing over simple piano accompaniment. The way the vocals and piano were recorded for both remind me of John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band recordings.
I guess you could accuse me of being a tease after all, getting a hold of these demos may not be the easiest thing. Or you might think I'm doing that rock-critic thing I made fun of recently, raving about songs most people may never hear. Fuck it. This stuff is too good, and you oughta know about it. And if you can find it, more power to ya!