‘Alpha Mike Foxtrot’ a nostalgic look at 20 years of Wilco

Arts & Culture
Wilco (Nonesuch, 2014)

Wilco is still flying high after two decades. The Chicago band is well liked by critics, enjoys a growing fan base without a hit single to its name, and even has its own music festival. Last year front man Jeff Tweedy appeared on NBC’s Parks & Recreation, a sign of the band’s current visibility in pop culture.

Alpha Mike Foxtrot: Rare Tracks 1994-2014, which marks Wilco’s 20th anniversary, is a nostalgic look at how far the band has come since its humble Midwestern beginnings. The four-disc set is billed as a collection of “rare tracks,” though many of the songs—demos, covers, live performances, and alternate cuts—have been released before in some form or another.

The songs are in chronological sequence, and like Wilco’s other records, they are best experienced in order. As a whole, they trace the band’s remarkable journey from flannel-clad alt country rock to the inventive, genre-bending sound they’ve become known for in recent years.

Most interesting of all is the 64-page booklet of liner notes containing track-by-track commentary from Tweedy. His candid notes provide some insight into his restless drive to push the band into unfamiliar artistic territory with each new record.

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The results of this constant tinkering are striking when comparing Wilco’s raucous early live performances (“Casino Queen”) to the subtle, expansive arrangements that characterize its later work (“Impossible Germany”). Commenting on an old recording of the band performing a bawdy bar song, Tweedy confesses, “I don’t know how we got to where we are from where we were there. It’s such a strange, strange path.”

There are a few other highlights and oddities, but the project is mostly a scrapbook of a major American band in transition. For Tweedy and company, the one constant is that it’s still all about the music—even if they’ve picked up a few more fans along the way.

This review appeared in the February 2015 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 80, No. 2, page 42).

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