There's a perfunctory, fan-service quality to any longtime band's collection of outtakes, rarities and live performances. Yet this four-disc peek behind the curtain of adventurous Chicago rock outfit Wilco fascinatingly lays bare the band's ambitions — and, often more intriguing, its faults.
It's not often that a band is as open with its rubbish as Wilco is on "Alpha Mike Foxtrot," a collection that's just as forthright with admissions of guilt for leaving a gem off a record. As a result, what could have been a random collection of odds and ends — or worse, a nostalgia grab — isn't so much a look at Wilco's alternate-history past as it is a glimpse at ground the band still has to cover.
Though "Alpha Mike Foxtrot" is curated by the band, it attempts to look back on Wilco's two-decade history as unsparingly as the 2002 documentary "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart," the Sam Jones-directed film that chronicles the group's acrimonious split from Reprise Records. Some songs offer glimpses at label politics, others rowdy or more experimental makeovers of album cuts, and some just chronicle a train wreck.
Check the self-deprecating way Wilco architect Jeff Tweedy introduces one track and see if it doesn't pique your curiosity: "Pretty painful listening," he writes in the accompanying notes about the little-known original "Let Me Come Home." "I think this may be the sound of untreated depression," he adds.
The bandleader's criticism is on the nose, but that's far from the only head-scratching moment here worthy of deeper investigation.
How about, for instance, the sound of Wilco the punk rock band? "Student Loan Stereo" is less than 2 minutes of hoarse shouting, guitars that sound as if they're overheating and a bottle-breaking grand finale. "Always one of my favorite tracks," confesses Tweedy, and it's not the only time Wilco reveals its lineage from the Replacements, circa 1983 (see the set's sprint-through of early-career country ballad "Passenger Side"), making one wonder whether the band's folk-leaning tendencies have occasionally been misplaced.
But if Wilco's punk rock fandom has gone criminally under-represented on its studio albums, it's long been evident in attitude. This is a career that stretches from the alt-country bullheadedness of its 1995 debut, "A.M.," to the celebrated pop deconstruction of 2001's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" (officially released by Nonesuch in 2002). From there the band veers into the panic-attack guitar wrecks of 2004's "A Ghost Is Born," only to softly land on the ornately detailed soulfulness of 2007's "Sky Blue Sky."
In an interview around the release of 2011's "The Whole Love," drummer Glenn Kotche said, "We can make straight-up noise. We can make straight-up pop. We can make a folk record. There's so much we have that we haven't even touched upon."
Evidence here suggests that Wilco should continue to explore every off-the-beaten path it encounters. "Unlikely Japan," a companion to "Sky Blue Sky's" "Impossible Germany," dissolves into Kraftwerk-like robotics. An alternate take on "A Ghost Is Born's" melancholic "Hummingbird" pairs a dance groove with alien-like chiming, and "Dark Neon" has a beat that sounds like a digital whip-crack.
As nice as these diversions are, one can take solace in the fact that despite all the lineup changes, Wilco appears to be a band that ultimately trusts its instincts. Though Tweedy admits fan favorites such as the sunny-side-up pop of "A Magazine Called Sunset" should have been album cuts, alternate takes of songs from 1999's colorful, keyboard-soaked "Summerteeth" show a disaster was nearly avoided.
A Warner Bros. remix of "A Shot in the Arm" takes one of Wilco's most powerful songs and outfits it with all sorts of studio noodling and sound effects, effectively papering over the tune's end-of-relationship lyrical bite.
It's the inclusion of this mistake that perhaps best makes the case for Wilco's importance. Rather than rely on studio trickery or audience pandering, Wilco holds the song itself in highest regard. The rhythms and melody may be malleable toys that can and should be regularly bent out of shape — or downright stripped apart — but Wilco understands the difference between experimentation and over-thinking.
"Alpha Mike Foxtrot"
Four stars (Out of four)