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Gray areas: Deep dive into Wilco’s ‘YHF’

Entertainment Editor Andy Gray

How much is too much of a good thing?

I don’t have an answer, but I discovered over the weekend that 11 LPs can leave a person wanting more.

Saturday’s mail brought the 11 LP, Super Deluxe edition of Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” a box set created to mark the 20th anniversary of the album’s release.

It’s not like there wasn’t plenty of information out there already. The 2002 Sam Jones documentary “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” chronicled its tumultuous creation, and a more recent documentary, “Where Are You, Jay Bennett?,” covers some of the same territory from the perspective of the band member fired from Wilco during the making of the album.

Some of the songs that didn’t make album and alternate versions of the ones that did can be found on the 2014 compilation, “Alpha Mike Foxtrot,” and fans have been trading bootlegs of the alternate versions nearly as long as they’ve been enjoying the official release.

The remastered version of the original release (LPs 1 and 2) are joined by three different versions of the album — “American Aquarium,” “Here Comes Everybody” and “Unified Theory of Everything” — that chronicle the evolution of YHF’s 11 songs and others discarded along the way. There’s also nearly three side of demos, drafts and instrumentals. The final three LPs are a live set recorded in St. Louis a couple of months after the album’s official release.

For a fan — Wilco probably is the band I’ve listened to the most over the last 25 years — it’s a fascinating deep dive into the group’s creative process. The different versions don’t contain minor tweaks, a changed guitar solo or an added / omitted backing vocal. There are several versions of “Kamera,” each one radically different than the next.

The “American Aquarium” version sounds like a more obvious follow-up to the band’s “Summerteeth” with its Beatlesque influences and layers upon layers of sound. I would have thoroughly enjoyed that collection back in 2001, but it wouldn’t have been a album that makes many critics’ shortlists of the best releases of the 21st century or one that would get this kind of attention today.

By “Unified Theory of Everything,” listeners can hear the impact of drummer Glenn Kotchke replacing original drummer Ken Coomer and the influence of Jim O’Rourke, Jeff Tweedy’s collaborator in the band Loose Fur and the person he brought in to mix the album.

At least I think that’s the case. The box set includes a 90-page book filled with photos, essays and interviews, but it doesn’t include detailed liner notes for the individual tracks. It would be great to know who’s playing what and on which version.

That said, the book is a great read, particularly the essay by Bob Mehr that fills the first half. Mehr, whose book “Trouble Boys” about The Replacements may be the best rock biography I’ve ever read, gives a voice to Bennett (using past interviews with the musician who died in 2009) and Coomer along with Tweedy, bass player John Stirratt, multi-instrumentalist Leroy Bach, Kotchke and O’Rourke.

I listened to all 11 LPs the day “YHF” arrived (good thing I was the only one home for most of the day) while doing some writing and things around the house. I gave a more focused listen to some of the alternate versions on Sunday, and I spent the time I was in the car listening to the alternate version of “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” that was packaged with the September issue of the British music magazine Uncut (most of the 11 songs are versions not found on the box set).

I can’t wait for each new revelation subsequent listens will provide.

Andy Gray is the entertainment editor of Ticket. Write to him at agray@tribtoday.com.

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