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WILCO – A Ghost Is Born (Nonesuch)

Posted: January 27th, 2005, by Chris S

A review for avant-garde left-field free-thinking music fans

Or; ‘I came for the guitar playing. But I stayed for the songs’.

Hello weird music fan. Nice hair.
Allow me to play the psychiatrist for a moment and tell you something about yourself.
You got into music when you were between the ages of 13 and 18. You started off on something relatively tuneful that you might still like because of a vague romantic nostalgia (i.e. Nirvana) but ultimately you feel you have developed your own tastes upward onto a higher plateau now.
Over time, the variables that you have to consider before you allow yourself to like a song have increased beyond ‘Does this rock?’, ‘Is this catchy?’ into complex equations involving influence, attitude, credibility, artistic vision, originality and quite possibly record label and band name and former bands of band members.
Once you liked the Lemonheads. Now you like Lightning Bolt, or maybe Wolf Eyes and Double Leopards.
It’s cool; I do too. I am not judging you. I’m talking to you as a friend.
I am also willing to bet as your tastes have developed you have recently begun to get less and less inspired by new music. It’s not surprising, you realise that if you’ve got a longer checklist to look at before letting a band affect you, then less bands will make the grade. Simple mathematics. But still, you’re going off music, it’s just not the same anymore. New bands are so yawnnnnnnnnn…
Well, I can help you out of the rot with this simple diagnosis:


It’s OK. The first step to beating a problem is admitting it exists. You’re denying your brain the music it likes best. You have to sort it out before it’s too late.
Stop protesting, I don’t believe it. I saw you at the front of that Deerhoof show almost crying when they played L’Amor Stories. You probably saw me too doing the same thing. That’s because it is pop music through and through, difference is Deerhoof wrap it up in familiar noise and avant-isms so it’s OK. You think you’re there for the oddness but you’re really there for the pop. Stop arguing.
A second ago Cornflake Girl by Tori Amos came on Radio 2 (my choice of station at work) and you know what? It sounded good. I’d like to hear it back. If they’d invented a repeat button for radio I’d have pressed it. Tori Amos has nothing to do with my life but that one song was great. Admit it; you have the same feelings about songs.
It’s what makes you like one Lightning Bolt song more than another. Why you skip to Track 3 on Sonic Nurse. Why Moonlight On Vermont makes the hairs on your neck stand up whereas Hobo Chang Ba doesn’t. Or doesn’t as much at any rate.
It’s because some songs are catchy. The hook part (whatever makes it) of even the noisiest noise is still what elevates it from good to memorable.

Damn it, Werewolves Of London by Warren Zevon is now on Radio 2 and that song is FUCKING AMAZING.

Don’t panic and go out and gorge yourself on the Beatles and Zuma by Neil Young. It’s been too long and you’ll probably damage yourself forever. That’s not the way to pull you out of this; it’s too abrupt. You need a graduated approach. If not, they’ll find you after a 3 week disappearance, flat out dead on the floor of your room in a set of high quality headphones with God Only Knows by the Beach Boys playing. You’ll literally die of tune. Your heart will burst.
Plus, your friends who might not be as far gone as you (or not realise it if they are) could take this sudden shift to the dark side badly.
What you need is an album that offers tune and experiment in equal measures.

So what’s this got to do with Wilco?

Well, Wilco make pop music. And, troubled avant-garde music fan, they are after YOUR vote.
What’s more you don’t have to do anything. I know how lazy you folks are. No effort is needed on your part. They’re driving round to your neighbourhood to win you over. A Ghost Is Born is the Wilco manifesto for perfect pop music made super tasty to all you arty types.
It’s going to sort you out.
Chances are you weren’t interested in Wilco around the time of the Summerteeth LP with the sublime single Can’t Stand It. I wouldn’t have been either were it not for a chance viewing of them on the TV playing the song at Glastonbury with more passion than any of the bands they shared the stage with that day.
You might have read reports about the follow up LP Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which succeeded in being strange enough to get them dropped from Warner Bros. That album is mighty let me assure you. David Fricke, the peculiarly-jawed never-ageing editor of Rolling Stone reckons that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is going to become some kind of catch-all term for substance over style, or for a band sticking to its creative guns in the face of adversity. He’s probably right. However, it cost Wilco dearly. They lost their original drummer part way through recording to be replaced by Glenn Kotche. After the album’s completion Jay Bennett, co-songwriter of some of the record, was fired. Then, after touring the record, multi-instrumentalist wiz Leroy Bach walked too (amicably) leaving just main man Jeff Tweedy and his former Uncle Tupelo sidekick John Stirratt as original members.
Jim O Rourke enters the picture here. He mixed Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and joined up with Kotche and Tweedy as Loose Fur for an LP on Drag City (which in retrospect sounds like a trial run for this Wilco record, hardly surprising seeing that the two line ups are so similar).
This time O Rourke produces and lends instrumental talents too. But don’t be mistaken and think O Rourke has sprinkled his improv noise dust on this. It isn’t his contributions that shine out on A Ghost Is Born. His role is fairly transparent. What is going to draw you in at first, avant-garder, is the phenomenal guitar playing handled almost entirely by Tweedy.
My New Year’s resolution was
‘Step up to the plate and play. More guitar solos in 2005’.
Looks like Jeff Tweedy beat me to it. The solo on Hell Is Chrome sounds like it’s beamed in from another galaxy and it is completely, soul-stirringly perfect. I use that P term sparingly and mean it one hundred percent. Tweedy’s sense of melody is proven by his song writing track record but his ability to put aside the box format and constraints of playing guitar and transfer this melodic skill into his instrument has propelled the Wilco sound into a new world closer to Television or Neil Young at his most icy. Long thought of as the rhythm player in Wilco, Tweedy has indeed stepped up to the plate. But it’s the songs and (most importantly) how they’re put together and dealt with that makes the record so special.
Tweedy has spoken at length of the deconstructive writing process Wilco employ and it’s spectacularly effective here. A Ghost Is Born is a very apt title; I take it to mean the songs themselves are born and cemented as mere shadows of their ‘real’ form, as stripped back and removed as they can be without actually disintegrating. The reverence that lesser songwriters place on their efforts often shackles their ability to best do justice to their output. Wilco’s total lack of worry about diving in two footed and tearing apart their own music shows something much more than a perverse compulsion to sabotage that Warner Bros mistakenly thought they had identified when they decided to drop the band.
It shows an unflinching confidence in the quality of their songs. It’s like they are daring themselves to progressively destroy their songs more and more to see how far they can go before they ruin what they’ve made but knowing the quality is so high that the song will shine through. It shows a band on absolutely peak form, bulletproof in their collective decision-making and as a listener it’s thrilling.
Spiders apparently began life as an intricate and complex multi-chorded song. Tweedy himself says that if you played songs from Wilco’s first album and last album on an acoustic guitar there wouldn’t be much difference but it’s in the way they treat the sonic qualities of their songs that shows progression. It’s illustrated perfectly by this song, which is a great slice of pop stretched into a 10 minute long Kraut workout with the original chords supported only by Tweedy’s vocals and the musical backing reduced to a single chorded, drum machine backed, metronomic pulse interspersed with lyrical skronk guitar that Marc Ribot would be proud of. When the song finally breaks the groove and hits a change the effect is euphoric.
Take Less Than You Think as a case in point too. A beautiful song supplemented by an additional ten minutes of crackle and drone that may push the point too much but serves to further blur the boundaries of exactly who is in charge of this record. Using the somewhat crap mettarrfer of a record being an animal; lesser bands would have reigned this collection of songs in to control it and to stamp their mark on it enough to show everyone, with no doubt, that they made it and were in charge of it. Wilco ending one of their most sublime moments with 10 mins of automated noise, created by their instruments with no human input implies that, rather than trumpet their abilities loudly, they acknowledge that these songs come from somewhere else unique and that they’re not entirely in charge of their music. Like the album title it gives the feeling this album is an entity in its own right.
And when you think the album is over they deliver the warmly human Late Greats to close, which has the effect of a cute shoulder-shrug delivered after some earth-shattering revelation.
(sample lyric: ‘The best song will never get sung/The best life never leaves your lungs/So good, you won’t ever know/I never hear it on the radio/Can’t hear it on the radio‘)
I can’t think of another band who could deliver an album with two plus-10 minute tracks alongside perfect sub-3 minute pop diamonds like I’m A Wheel and not have those 2 polar opposites of composition sound like 2 polar opposites of song. With Wilco you feel they can do anything and it would all come from the same band.
Wilco fans and fans of song writing will love this record, the quality of the songs not only shines through the experimental action but is enhanced by it to a point where you honestly believe these songs are as good as they possibly could be. I’ll save them the sales pitch.
But you, Mr or Mrs left field; you have no excuse. Wilco are here to sort out your music hassles. They are even on the cover of the fucking Wire for god’s sake. And don’t give me that ‘I don’t really like the Wire’ line you loser. What’s more, when they tour the UK in March they have Nels Cline on guitar to propel Wilco to a 2 guitar line up to actually stop wars.
With A Ghost Is Born, Wilco have made a truly revolutionary record: a collection of songs that will reinforce the idea of bravery among their fans but more importantly remind us avantwankers why we love music so much in the first place.

Don’t say I don’t do anything for you.

Chris S

Chris lives for the rock and can often be seen stumbling drunkenly on (and off) stages far and wide. Other hobbies include wearing jumpers, arsing about with Photoshop and trying to beat the world record for the number of offensive comments made in any 24 hour period. He has been married twice but his heart really belongs to his guitars. All 436 of them.


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