“Its vaporous, insinuating, rusty-carousel melodies start to carve out a permanent orbit in your skull.”
-from Entertainment Weekly’s review of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, 2002
These days, it’s hard to call anything Wilco’s done overlooked. Given my unabashed fandom for the band though, I figure it’s inevitable that I would find a way to work them into this blog at some point, so this week’s track comes from off the beaten path of their mainstream releases. Supposedly “leaked” by someone close to the band, the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot Demos are more than the title suggests. Its 21 tracks are comprised of some demos of released YHF songs, but there are also “finished versions” of songs that didn’t make the record that Rolling Stone called the 3rd best album of the decade. The great (now defunct) music blog That Truncheon Thing has a wonderful write up of the album in this post from 2007. One other highlight worth mentioning, if you like the released version of the song “Kamera”, you might (or might not) appreciate its much more raw (but lots of fun) ancestor, “Kamera (alternative version)”.
Among those lost tracks, there are probably better examples of artistry than “Alone”; see “Venus Stop the Train” for instance, but this blog is about hooks with depth, and for my money…er bandwidth? “Alone” takes the cake for pure musical fun masking some dreary lyrics.
First, I have to mention that this song has been a mainstay on my 4 and 6 year-olds’ playlist of favorites since I first found the song in ’07. From the outset it just has that feel that you’re in for something special musically. I should also mention quickly that there are at least three version of this song out there with different productions. The one I’m reviewing is not the track from another set of outtakes called The Engineer Demos nor the alternate version from this collection.
After a brief synth sync track, the triple team of organ, bass, and drums blast right in to stay as the only backing for Jeff Tweedy’s vocals. Organ on the highs and bass on the beat present a nice contrast and push up more prominent in the mix than those instruments usually get, perhaps due to the demo nature of the song. “Alone” is no more the worse for lack of guitar though, as the simple sounds echo the dichotomy between the uppy bounce of the music versus the down-in-the-dumps lyrics.
My favorite hook comes in verse two as Tweedy syncopates his sounds to “go for walk, go for a drive, or listen to the stereo and stay inside”. My kids and I have some spirited shuffling dance sessions on that beat, so it seems to fit to some kind of standard dance beat, but that’s just a guess. I’ll leave any real analysis on that end to someone who might move a bit better than a yak.
Once when this song was playing in the car, my daughter, 5 years old at the time asked me, “Dad, why is he alone?” I said “because he doesn’t have any friends”, to which she responded. “Well I’ll come over and be his friend.” It takes a few listens to grok Tweedy’s quietly desperate lyrics when your ears are digging that bouncy beat. The subtitle and opening line, “Shakin’ Sugar”, first presents this facade of happiness, as we’re used to “sugar” in our lyrics describing a blissful relationship. (Anyone remember The Archies?). So that paradox is portrayed in the title itself before those first organ and bass beats kick in. Quickly though, the first phrases make it clear that this isn’t metaphorical sugar, it’s the granulated kind, shaken into peppermint tea. The line appears again later, this time with even more obvious bite, as it’s shaken into some “bitter black coffee, beneath the moon”. Tweedy makes use of two meanings for the word “feel” for the bridge. First he “feels like a book” but he just can’t start it, then “feels like a lover, brokenhearted”. The broken heart part is universal, and almost cliché for a song strong as this, but it sets up the final devastating statement as he looks in the mirror and feels “like a question no one ever asked”
The YHF Demos are a treasure trove for even the casual Wilco fan. There is almost another strong album worth of material here, so it’s worth searching for and not hard to find with some good Googling. Just be careful not to hurt yourself if you decide to break into a Shakin’ Sugar shuffle.