More than most latter-day rock acts, Wilco has largely defined itself with albums, as opposed to singles, videos or some attention-grabbing public persona. The Chicago band’s LPs stand as discrete bodies of work that comprise a greater whole, and they delineate specific eras in leader Jeff Tweedy’s songwriting, the shifting lineups of musicians playing with him and the way it all fits together. There’s no mistaking a track from Being There for one from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, for example, just as a Jay Bennett guitar solo exists in a different space than one from Nels Cline.
The band’s eight studio LPs, and two Mermaid Avenue collaborations with Billy Bragg, chart a sort of evolution, from tentative first steps on A.M., their blowzy 1995 debut after the demise of Uncle Tupelo the previous year, to the sophisticated blend of subtlety and power on The Whole Love, Wilco’s most recent album. Along with those albums, Wilco has spent the past 20 years releasing a steady supply of extra material on bonus EPs, compilations, soundtracks and the web. There’s been a surprising amount of it: the group’s new collection Alpha Mike Foxtrot: Rare Tracks 1994-2014 is a four-disc, 77-song assemblage of demos, alternate takes, live versions and covers. (There’s also a companion piece, the best-of What’s Your 20: Essential Tracks, to mark the band’s 20th anniversary.)
Taken together, the songs on Alpha Mike Foxtrot represent an alternate history of Wilco. All of them have been released previously, so there’s nothing new or particularly surprising here. Even so, the collection offers a glimpse inside the band’s development, and at times has an air of what might have been even as it reinforces Tweedy’s overall artistic vision. The stomping, aggressive “Camera” would have been a poor substitute for “Kamera,” its carefully balanced counterpart on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, while the alternate version of “Hummingbird” tilts too far toward what Old 97’s singer Rhett Miller once called the “German noise machine” aspect of Wilco’s 2004 album A Ghost Is Born. There are exceptions: the alternate version of “Airline to Heaven” is simpler and more direct than the take that opens Mermaid Avenue Vol. II.
There’s also more sonic and stylistic overlap. Though Wilco recorded “A Magazine Called Sunset” during sessions for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the jaunty pop song sounds as though it could have been part of Summerteeth, which preceded it. In the liner notes, Tweedy calls it “a real attempt at complete pop music—full-on pop music and not the kind of pop music that’s popular apparently.” “The Good Part,” from the same period, shows lingering echoes of 1996’s Being There in the brawny guitar and straightforward drums, while Tweedy’s anguished vocals on “Let Me Come Home” hints at the darker moments on A Ghost Is Born.
The generous allotment of live tracks offers fans of the band’s concerts a chance to hear how the songs have evolved onstage—the layers of muscular guitars that propel “The Late Greats,” for example, or Cline’s searing, seemingly effortless flights of guitar magic on “Impossible Germany”—while also showing the band’s collaborative side. Andrew Bird guests on a version of “Jesus, Etc.,” and Fleet Foxes helps with gorgeous, Band-worthy harmonies on a cover of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.” Then there are the covers, among them a lovely, low-key country version of Big Star’s “Thirteen,” a spacious take on Daniel Johnston’s “True Love Will Find You in the End” and a tight stab at Steely Dan’s “Any Major Dude Will Tell You,” which first appeared on the soundtrack for Me, Myself & Irene.
Generous as Alpha Mike Foxtrot is, it’s ultimately a little bit of a tease: though it’s nice having them all in one place, these songs have already been available, even if some of them were hard to find. The question now is how much previously unheard material Wilco has in the can, and when (or whether) they plan to start releasing it.