Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot Outtakes

Posted: October 2, 2022 in Uncategorized
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There are few albums as storied as Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. I don’t intend to even attempt to document the album’s history, let alone its influence. If you want that there are books and movies and websites galore that will take you down that rabbit hole.

However, with the recent release of the Super Deluxe reissue of Wilco’s 2001 alt-rock classic, sometimes referred to as America’s Kid A, I thought it would be well within the spirit of this blog to try and document the many alternate versions of the songs that wound up on this album, as well as those that were left on the cutting room floor.

I have a long relationship with Wilco and Yankee. I was almost there when it happened. I remember reading favourable press around their ambitious Americana double album Being There, but didn’t check it out. Then their Billy Bragg collaboration struck a nerve with the NPR/CBC crowd, which included my fiancé. She picked up Mermaid Ave and it began regular rotation in our house which continues to this day. We bought Vol II on our honeymoon.

Their follow-up, Summerteeth, also got great critical praise, with “Beach Boys/Brian Wilson” being frequent reference points. I checked that one out from the library many times. Its more experimental bent wasn’t to my wife’s taste, but it certainly was to mine.

I didn’t get Yankee right away. I was in a phase where I was no longer following the latest music press. So I missed the whole story of a band being dropped by a label only to have another label from the same conglomerate buy that album out and release it. I missed its release on the awful day that was 9/11, and the eerie coincidence about twin towers on the cover and lyrics about buildings quaking.

But about a year later it was in my local on a 2/$15 deal and I jumped. Knowing nothing of the album’s mystique and reputation, I put it on in my car CD player. From those first cacophonous drums into the oblique opening lyric – “I am an American aquarium drinker” – I was hooked. Top to bottom, this was an important album that in 20+ years has never let me go.

Since then, I’ve been a card-carrying member of the church of Wilco/Jeff Tweedy. I’ve got all the albums, 7” singles, side projects, seen them live, yadda, yadda, yadda. And like any good Wilco fan, I’ve already gone deep into the two leaked sets of Yankee outtakes – commonly referred to as YHF Demos and YHF Engineer’s Mixes – that have circulated among fans for years.

These sets provide a window into the recording of Yankee before Jim O’Rourke was brought in to finish mixing the album. From them, I long ago compiled a companion album that sounds like a bridge between Summerteeth and Yankee.

With the release of the 2022 edition Yankee, we now have four more discs of outtakes, some of which overlaps with the old leaked sets, some of which doesn’t. I’m not going to review this set. Put simply, it’s beyond excellent. But there are others already reviewing it adequately.

My purpose in this blog entry, then, is to give a quick overview of every version now available of every YHF song. For fans looking to compile a mega-playlist, hopefully this will be a useful guide. Let’s get started…

As a first step, the sources I’ll refer to are the three “standalone albums” included in the YHF deluxe bos set, the fourth disk of random outtakes, the two previously leaked demo sets, and YHF b-sides which rounded up on the Alpha Mike Foxtrot box set. These are:

  • American Aquarium (AA): the first disc of the deluxe box set, likely containing mixes from earlier in the recording sessions, although the four discs do not strictly run in chronological order
  • Here Comes Everybody (HCE): the second disc of the deluxe box set
  • The Unified Theory of Everything (UTE): the third disc of the deluxe box set, likely intended to reflect a close to completion alternate version of the album with more influence by Jim O’Rourke
  • Lonely in the Deep End (LDE): the odds and sods disc of the deluxe box set.
  • YHF Demos: The first unofficial disc of leaked demos.
  • Engineer Mix: The second unofficial disc of leaked demos.
  • Alpha Mike Foxtrot (AMF): any officially released b-sides.

American Aquarium

A weird and long outtake from early in the sessions with fragments of many songs that would later come to fruition. The mellotron makes it sound a bit like a Summerteeth track. There are now three versions of this song:

  • AA Version: This song was officially released on AA and was previously released as Corduroy Cutoff Girl on the Engineer’s set.
  • Instrumental #2: an instrumental version on the YHF Demos
  • Instrumental #2 – Take 2: an alternate, but similar, version on the YHF Demos

Anniversary (Nothing Up My Sleeve)

A nice acoustic outtake with beautiful harmonies and even some whistling. There are two main versions:

  • AA Version: The officially released song is very similar to a song called Nothing Up My Sleeve which was on both the YHF Demos and Engineer sets. The Engineer Mix doesn’t have the clattering drums at the beginning, so may have some other slight variants in the mix.
  • Backing Track: Included on LDE, this is an instrumental backing track that’s a little sunnier and more fleshed out than the track with vocals.

Ashes of American Flags

One of the most important tracks on the album, this one went through many iterations before the final version:

  • AA Version: A really stripped back version driven by acoustic guitar and piano with vocals warbling through a Leslie effect.
  • HCE Version: Another stripped back version, this time with a bit more organ and brighter drums.
  • Stravinsky Mix: This is the version intended for the album, but it had to be altered because the Stravinsky sample was rejected. Much weirder than the earlier versions!
  • YHF Demos Version: Another stripped down version, but with some early introduction of the sonic dissonance that would characterize the final version.
  • Engineer Mix: More noise and the first one to introduce the signature electric guitar riff.

Cars Can’t Escape

A beautiful ballad that snuck out as a b-side.

  • AMF Version: The official version is similar to a leaked version on YHF Demos.
  • AA Version: A very simple piano ballad approach, previously leaked as Cars Can’t Escape (Rhythm) on YHF Demos.
  • HCE Version: This version adds orchestration (banjo, tack piano, drums, etc.) approaching the final version. It also has a longer outro that switches up the underlying chord progression.
  • Engineer Mix: This version is with the full band, but with simpler instrumentation: Wurlitzer, acoustic guitar, bass and piano. The synth comes in at the end is loud. It then drops and the band returns to the descending chord progression.

The Good Part

Another b-side.

  • AMF Version: A fully fleshed out arrangement.
  • HCE Version: A noisier version than the final mix. Tons of fuzzed out guitar and bass on this one. Also leaked on the Engineer’s Mix set.
  • LDE Version: A lo-fi demo that’s much darker, featuring only electric guitar and a simple drum part.

Has Anybody Seen My Pencil

An experimental song included on LDE, that’s a loose antecedent to Won’t Let You Down.

Heavy Metal Drummer

A song built around a cool rhythm on a capoed 12-string acoustic guitar. This was tracked early on, rejected, and then brought back late in the game. I believe all versions are built on the same take of the 12-string rhythm.

  • UTE Version: An alternate mix that lacks the polish of the final version.
  • YHF Demo: Another mix similar to the UTE version.
  • Engineer Mix: A less ornate early mix with fewer overdubs.

I Am Trying to Break Your Heart

Perhaps the greatest song in the Wilco catalogue. This one went through many changes.

  • AA Version: Just piano, drums and vocals, plus some random radio noise.
  • HCE Version: Mellotron and piano enter the mix plus more confident drums and no guitar.
  • UTE Version: A noisier version that emphasizes a looped riff on the bells. Lots of percussion.
  • LDE Version: A later version with no drums or percussion, but lots of other instrumental parts. This might actually be the live Kicking Television version with the drums mixed out. It definitely sounds like Nels Cline’s live guitar parts that appeared when he joined the band after A Ghost is Born.
  • YHF Demo: A variant on the HCE Version with the weird scratchy loop coming in at the beginning of the song, instead of later.
  • Engineer Mix: Another variant on the HCE Version.

I’m The Man Who Loves You

One of Jeff’s personal favourites, this one also went through many iterations.

  • AA Version: A loose, southern rock flavoured version with a repeated slide guitar riffs in the background.
  • HCE Version: An acoustic version.
  • UTE Version: An acoustic rock approach that sounds like 1965-era Bob Dylan.
  • LDE Version: The slowest version of all of them with a sludgy, but heavy beat.
  • YHF Demo: This one is closer to what was heard in the I Am Trying to Break Your Heart film. It takes the slide guitar heard in the AA version and loops it ad nauseaum as the core of the mix.
  • Engineer Mix: A more fleshed out version of the YHF Demo mix.

I’m The Only One Who Lets Her Down

A repetitive little acoustic lo-fi demo include on LDE. Interesting in that it shares some lyrics with what would become Handshake Drugs.

Jesus, etc.

  • UTE Version: similar to the album version but with no strings or pedal steel
  • LDE Version: a faster, simple demo with drums and Wurlitzer piano.

Kamera

Perhaps the song that went through the most iterations. Yet none sound like the brilliant album version.

  • AMF Version: Also known as Camera, this a pummeling rock version released as a b-side. This is an iteration on the Engineer’s mix with some additional overdubs by Mikael in 2002.
  • AA Version: A bright Phil Spector style approach. Would have been great on Summerteeth. Also leaked on the YHF Demos.
  • HCE Version: A soulful version driven by piano and organ.
  • UTE Version: A bright rock version with fuzzed out guitars approaching the AMF version.
  • LDE Version: A faster take of the AMF and UTE approaches.
  • Alternate Mix: A slow, sludgy take of the AMF version.
  • Engineer’s Mix: The basis for the AMF version.

Let Me Come Home

A beautiful unreleased ballad.

  • AMF Version: The b-side is a piano ballad with upright bass, cello and light drums also leaked on YHF Engineer’s mixes.
  • Instrumental #1: An instrumental version of the b-side mix was included on the YHF Demos and the Engineer’s Mixes
  • AA Version: A simpler mix with the piano removed and the synth cello mixed up front.
  • Synth Version: An instrumental of weird synths. Fans of Sufjan Stevens take note.

Lost Poem

A wonky outtake on LDE.

Love (Will Let You Down)

  • LDE Version: A Stones-style rocker. Leaked as Will Not Let You Down on YHF Demos and Never Let You Down on the Engineer’s Mix

A Magazine Called Sunset

This YHF b-side was played with a bit in studio including playing with speed, in some mixes raising the key from F to F#, in others just playing it in totally different keys.

  • AMF Version: The b-side is in the key of F and was originally leaked on the Engineer’s Mix set.
  • UTE Version: A version driven by organ instead of mellotron, played down a key in E with a guitar solo that quotes The Beatles’ Nowhere Man.
  • LDE Version: Percussion driven approach. This one is played all the way up in the key of A!
  • Backing Track: An instrumental version of the AMF mix. Standard key of F.
  • YHF Demo: a simpler mix of the AMF version sped up, kicking the key into F#.
  • Alternate Mix: The Demo Mix back in the correct tempo and key of F. Leaked on YHF Demos.

Not For the Season

One of the great unreleased Wilco tracks!

  • AA Version: A very, very sparse version.
  • HCE Version: A rocking version driven by “Bruce Springsteen style” piano and drums. Previously leaked on YHF Demos.
  • Alternate Version: another take of the HCE version on the YHF Demos.

Ooby Dooby

A fun Roy Orbison cover on the LDE set. Included in the 1999 film Jesus’ Son and one of the first songs recorded at the Loft (which was funded by an advance on Mermaid Ave Vol II).

Poor Places

  • AA Version 1: An amazing version driven by buoyant piano. A must listen. Previously leaked on YHF Demos.
  • AA Version 2: A quiet acoustic guitar-driven version tuned down to A.
  • HCE Version: A simplified piano version.
  • UTE Version: A version driven by Hammond organ, with a bit of gospel swing.
  • Engineer Mix: A long version and the first to introduce the Conet Project samples along with the coda. This one is driven by Wurlitzer and piano and is the closest to the final version, although it’s still lacking some key guitar and piano overdubs.

Pot Kettle Black

  • HCE Version: a weird version that de-emphasizes the drums and adds a lot of swirling effects. It also really shows how much the main riff sounds like Inbetween Days by The Cure!
  • UTE Version: A brightened up mix with a bass riff, harmonica, and funky Jay guitar.
  • Engineer Mix: Close to the final version with filtered percussion.

Radio Cure

This one could get pretty minimal live, so interesting to see its evolution in the studio.

  • HCE Version: a simple acoustic version.
  • UTE Version: a version that strangely breaks out into heavy When the Levee Breaks drums part way through.

Remember to Remember

An early version of Hummingbird, which would be fleshed out for A Ghost is Born.

  • HCE Version: a sparse organ-led version.
  • UTE Version: this one moves faster with a dark guitar riff.

Reservations

  • AA Version: sparse piano version.
  • HCE Version: an organ driven by organ and electronic blips, approaching the final mix. Leaked on YHF Demos.
  • UTE Version: another mix of the HCE version with the piano pulled back
  • Backing Track: an instrumental of the final mix on LDE.
  • Engineer Mix: Another mix similar to the UTE version.

Shakin’ Sugar

A great lost pop song!

  • AA Version: A fun 60s style pop song originally leaked (in a slightly different mix) on YHF Demos.
  • HCE Version: A more Yankee style version with filtered synths, originally leaked on the Engineer Mix set.
  • Alternate Version: Another mix of the AA Version leaked on the YHF Demos set.

Venus Stopped the Train

Truly the great lost Wilco song. Jeff held this one back for personal reasons.

  • AA Version: Beautiful piano ballad with Mellotron
  • HCE Version: Another piano take with storm sounds. Leaked on YHF Demos.
  • Engineer’s Mix: Another piano take, this time with less reverb.

War on War

No early mixes got close to the pristine final mix.

  • AA Version: An upbeat version with… banjo?
  • HCE Version: A tight version with… hand claps?
  • UTE Version: A more fleshed out mix of the HCE version.
  • Engineer’s Mix: A simpler version with a low vocal.
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