Some killjoys are already deriding the success of Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" as the triumph of prelude over product. But that stance is probably just more fallout from the very confusing series of events that happened behind the music in the first place. In fact, the tangle of tie-ups and missed release dates has so muddied Wilco's timeline that only through two new discs by Wilco-related projects has the band's recent back-story finally been cleared up.
Back in 2000, Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy was listening a lot to the neo-folk recordings of Jim O'Rourke, the avant-garde mainstay who has since gone on to join Sonic Youth. Intrigued by O'Rourke's unconventional approach to music, Tweedy invited him to collaborate during Chicago's Noise Pop festival. Joined by drummer Glenn Kotche, the trio played a single show featuring little banter to a sold-out club full of Wilco fans shouting for the favorites they wouldn't get to hear.
Fast-forward a few months and Kotche had replaced Ken Coomer as the drummer in Wilco, while O'Rourke was busy mixing "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot." But in between, Kotche, O'Rourke and Tweedy recorded what would become "Loose Fur," a disc of songs and experiments, with Tweedy and O'Rourke alternating lead vocals. Some songs, like "Laminated Cat," debuted in some form during Wilco sets. Others, like the jazzy and loose "So Long," seemed more in line with O'Rourke's work, affording Tweedy the chance to mess around musically in a way that Wilco didn't always allow.
By booting out Coomer and longtime collaborator Jay Bennett, Tweedy made room to experiment in Wilco. In spring 2001, with the collaboration with O'Rourke set aside for the time being, Wilco turned in the adventurous "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" to its label. The mess that followed -- Wilco was unceremoniously dropped -- was subsequently documented in the film "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart." Needless to say, the band needed a break and found one in friend Scott McCaughey, who was just starting work on a new Minus 5 album and invited Wilco to help out.
Ironically, just as "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" found a new home, the Minus 5 disc -- dubbed "Down With Wilco" -- was shelved. In light of the positive reception given "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," "Down with Wilco" eventually found a new label. But first to hit the street was "Loose Fur," which predates even "YHF" and promptly had all but the most knowledgeable Wilco buffs scratching their heads.
Yet "Down with Wilco" and "Loose Fur" actually sound like flip sides of Wilco's work, the former the shadow-image of "Summerteeth," the latter an even more skeletal reflection of what went into "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot." More important, the releases all seem of a piece, part of a cohesive whole made apparent only once Wilco's puzzling timeline is laid out. This says as much about Tweedy's choice in collaborators as it does about his own considerable talents.
The sometimes free-form and jagged Loose Fur collection, combined with the gorgeous psychedelic pop of "Down With Wilco," demonstrates not only how Tweedy and the rest of Wilco draw inspiration from collaboration, but how they likewise often bring out the best in others. Now, with everyone caught up to date, all eyes are on Tweedy to see where he goes next.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from "Loose Fur," call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8151. For "Down With Wilco," press 8152.)