Wilco have gone all out in celebration of their 20th anniversary. On top of What’s Your 20, a ‘Best Of’ style compilation, the American alternative rock group have just released Alpha Mike Foxtrot. The 4CD Box Set contains rare studio and live recordings spanning a twenty-year period from Wilco’s alternative country style of the mid-90s through to their more modern rock sound. In contrast to the standard Best Of approach of What’s Your 20, Alpha Mike Foxtrot provides an abstract, behind-the-scenes look at the band’s transformation throughout the past two decades.
Disc One very much captures the 1990s alternative country sound that was so prominent in Wilco’s earliest recordings. With the stripped-back acoustic demos of Childlike And Evergreen from 1995 and Someone Else’s Song from the subsequent year, Disc One opens gently, providing a sensitive introduction to the box set. The album maintains this sound throughout, making a standout of the 1994 rendition of Ernest Tubb’s The T.B. Is Whipping Me, which also features the subtle, but emotive vocals of Syd Straw. This CD concludes with the upbeat demo of Monday off their 1996 album Being There. A little more electric and percussive, this track is evocative of the bluesy Rolling Stones sound of two decades earlier.
While Monday is a lot rockier than the previous tracks of the first disc, it still stands in stark contrast with the opening tracks of Disc Two, Passenger Side and Outtasite. These have unmistakeably punk influences; uncomplicated, live and raw, and with Jeff Tweedy’s, sometimes unintelligibly, shouted vocals these tunes are likely to regain the interests the more rock-inclined audience who may have tuned out in the first album.
This is one thing Alpha Mike Foxtrot manages to do very well, showcasing the ability of Wilco to write and perform a variety of genres with proficiency. Their eclectic style is emphasised again in the Fourth Disc, which boasts a live rendition of Bob Dylan’s I Shall Be Released with indie folk icons Fleet Foxes. The box-set concludes with the band’s 2009 duet with Feist, You And I. This sensitive conclusion ties in nicely with the gentle country sound of the compilation’s opening and rounds off the album with consideration.
There is always a danger with live releases that the quality of the recording won’t be on par with the studio, however, placed in the capable hands of Grammy-nominated producer and co-founder of Omnivore Recordings, Cheryl Pawelski, all the live tracks are of unmissably high quality.
This box-set is a very well constructed and thorough look at Wilco’s previously unreleased back catalogue, however it is extremely long. At 77 songs, Alpha Mike Foxtrot is a dream come true for die-hard fans of the band, however the sheer size of the collection may cause its significance to be lost on those who weren’t previously aware of Wilco. Nevertheless, this compilation is significant, capturing the unique band in, what is overall, a delightful listen.