Jayhawks – Bad Time / Wilco – Box Full Of Letters / Teenage Fanclub – Sparky’s Dream
These import maxi-singles (or CD-5s, as they’re called in the record biz) by three estimable bands adhere to the template for this configuration: Each leads off with a single from the current album, followed by three non-LP tracks. Included are covers — Wilco twangs out on Moby Grape’s “I Am Not Willing” and the Tex-Mexy “Who Were You Thinkin’ Of,” the Jayhawks dust off the country chestnut “Last Cigarette” (featuring a lead vocal by keyboardist Karen Grotberg) and the Merle Haggard classic “Sing Me Back Home,” and Teenage Fanclub chooses Neil Young’s Buffalo Springfield-vintage “Burned” — obscure originals, and, in Wilco’s case, live recordings. None of this additional music is essential (except to completists, who make up virtually the entire market for these hard-to-find trinkets), but listening to them can be as revealing as flipping through the workbooks of a complex friend.
If I had to pick one of these discs (in truth, I sprang for all three), I’d be hard-pressed to endorse the Wilco single, despite the dusty languor of the Grape tune, because “Who Were You Thinkin’ Of” (a staple of the band’s shows) is just passable in this live performance, and the live “Casino Queen” sounds thin and half-hearted compared to the ballsy studio take on Wilco’s immensely appealing A.M. It’s obvious why Teenage Fanclub’s pair of originals didn’t get recorded for the band’s high-pop opus Grand Prix: Raymond McGinley’s “For You”, for example, takes TFC’s career-long quest for formal purity to its illogical extreme as the lines “It’s for you” and “I know you” are repeated ad infinitum over varying chord changes.
The clear winner is the Jayhawks single, which collects three outtakes from the sessions for the magnificent Tomorrow the Green Grass. Louris/Olson’s mostly instrumental “The Load Out” evokes the endless ordeal of life on the road via a litany of standard bar-band riffs, while the two covers revisit the music that inspired the band’s existence with a childlike obsessiveness that is utterly disarming. If you can relate to that, start searching.