As I listened to this record, I realized that many of us spend a good deal of time trying to understand how we relate (and sometimes don’t relate) to others. With the fast pace of life, we just don’t always get the time or the opportunity to talk to anyone at any great depth or length about some of our deepest thoughts and feelings.

A GHOST IS BORN
(2004) Music Review by Jim Davis

This page was created on August 23, 2004
This page was last updated on July 27, 2005


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MUSIC REVIEWS INDEX
Jim's Wilco blog comment here


DETAILS

1. At Least That's What You Said
2. Hell Is Chrome
3. Spiders (Kidsmoke)
4. Muzzle of Bees
5. Hummingbird
6. Handshake Drugs
7. Wishful Thinking
8. Company in My Back
9. I'm a Wheel
10. Theologians
11. Less Than You Think
12. Late Greats

CD INFO
A Ghost Is Born [ENHANCED]
Wilco

The infectious twang and pop hooks of Wilco's former efforts may be fading fast, but A Ghost Is Born is still a rewarding effort that demands repeated listening. The group's fifth album extends upon the experimentalism of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot with angular, blues-soaked guitar riffs ("At Least That's What You Said," "Hell Is Chrome"), a handful of sparse, yet catchy tunes (smack dab in the middle of the disc) that will surely keep college radio stations smiling, and a lengthy track that descends into mere static ("Less Than You Think"). Frontman Jeff Tweedy's songwriting continues to evolve: "Hummingbird" is a dreamy Randy Newman-styled love song; "The Late Greats" is a sly ode to the world of pop tacked onto the end of the album (as if using such a fun song on this understated disc was an afterthought). Meanwhile, producer extraordinaire Jim O'Rourke manages to make the most complicated arrangements here sound minimalist and laid-back. All told, it's another great addition to the Wilco canon. --Jason Verlinde
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Wilco, A Ghost Is Born

(Nonesuch Records, 2004)

REVIEW BY JIM DAVIS
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Wilco's highly anticipated fifth studio release, A Ghost Is Born (AGIB) showcases the feelings and emotions of the human heart as songwriter and group leader Jeff Tweedy deftly lets the music echo and expand the thoughts and sentiments expressed by the lyrics. While Wilco's previous release, Yankee Foxtrot Hotel, tended to focus on the world around, AGIB looks at the world within.

Click to enlargeThe album opens with “At Least That’s What You Said.” The singer is talking to someone and then instead of moving into dialogue between two people, the song builds in rhythm and pace with pounding piano and blistering guitar licks (a la Neil Young & Crazy Horse), as if the music is talking back with its own voice.

Hell Is Chrome” recounts a chilling interaction between the singer and the devil. Rather than the typical flames, the singer describes a place that was “clean and had streets of chrome” (“when the devil came he was not red, he was chrome and he said come with me”) and where the singer “was welcomed with open arms.” Then a hypnotic piano and electric blues guitar takes the listener on a journey while the singer tells us that he felt as if he belonged. [The feelings of acceptance and belonging are pleasant emotions that all of us can relate to.]

Click to enlargeSpiders (Kidsmoke)” is both a whimsical and a strange song (spiders filling out tax returns?). Because I enjoyed the first 2 songs so much, I was willing to go along for the ride, but this song didn’t really take me anywhere. It sounded as if it was a demo in search of a direction and a more cohesive theme. [I was left wondering how this cut would sound if performed live.]

A Muzzle of Bees” is a smoothly produced and catchy number with great acoustic guitar and melodies. [I don’t care if I don’t know what a muzzle of bees is.] Eventually, this cut moves into a screeching crescendo of blazing electric guitar.

Hummingbird” is a very pleasing tune reminiscent of The Beatles' White Album or Abbey Road LP (shades of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer" abound). While listening to this song I was reminded anew that AGIB was mastered at the famous Abbey Roads studio.

Click to enlargeHandshake Drugs” seems to be about the small and temporary fix that we sometimes get from others. The song bemoans relationships that only lightly touch you and don’t really satisfy, and at the same time the music bounces and flows and takes the listener downtown on a stroll with the singer. Then the guitar again takes over and leads the listener out of the song in a most satisfying way.

Wishful Thinking” draws in the listeners with its multi-instrumental layered introduction. In a sort of R.E.M. style tune, Tweedy discusses the ups and downs typical of life, but reminds both himself and the listeners to ask themselves, “What would life be without wishful thinking?” At first I didn’t appreciate this song, as the pace and sound were so different from the songs that precede it, that it seemed to make the record stall. Upon further listening, I decided that the change of pace and the time to pause and reflect on what was being said in the song was effective.

Click to enlargeCompany in My Back” shines the light on Wilco’s crazy rollercoaster ride of 2002, as they presented the blue-suited money people at Warner-Reprise with their Yankee Hotel Foxtrot record. It seems that the “creative thinking outside the box” mentality that Tweedy and the group exhibited was too big a business risk for these executives, who decided to pass on that record.

Not daunted or dissuaded, Tweedy and band shopped the record around on the Internet, and an indie label named Nonesuch records picked up on the record, which sold amazingly well. [The “money people” at Wilco’s former record company must have turned green with envy.] Up until the release of YHF, Wilco was not very well known outside the college radio and alt-country music circles.

I’m a Wheel” is pure rollicking rock and roll fun: the pace of this tune is refreshing, as if the group takes a break from introspection and turns its attention to reminding themselves and the listener how much fun it can be to just rock. The song is like a wheel: it rolls along and picks up speed with each guitar chord and drum beat.

Theologians” has strong music, blistering guitar, a great steady driving piano -– and a cherry ghost? [Don’t know what a cherry ghost is, but in some strange way it seems to fit into the focus and intent of the song.] Tweedy sings that theologians “don’t know nothing about my soul” and that “they thin my heart with little things and my life with change,” but he cries that “I find more missing every day.” [Thank God for honest souls who are not afraid to openly speak or sing about their observations, thoughts and feelings.]

Less Than You Think” is the low point and a major disappointment on this record. The song opens with soft, steady piano chords, which led me to believe that at some point the tune would shift gears and move into some previously uncharted territory. The shift never happened; instead this promising tune is replaced by a useless 9 minutes of white noise. Yes, this song truly was less than I thought it would be!

Click to enlargeLate Greats” is a fun song that is enjoyable when listened to on a good set of speakers or headphones. [It reminded me of the great studio work and experimentation that The Beatles did when they stopped touring and began to focus more of their energy into studio recording; the result of which was their landmark and classic Revolver album.]

The import version of the AGIB includes one additional cut, Kicking Television. This is a fun song that seems to fall out of the sky, but somehow it is a great song that rightly caps off a somewhat uneven record.

On the first couple of plays of AGIB, I was rather disappointed with the record. The bold and extremely well produced YHF album had attracted scores of new fans, including myself, to Wilco. As I first listened to AGIB, I had some expectations that were too closely tied to my enjoyment of YHF, and I realized that I had to approach AGIB as an entity unto itself. AGIB is a different sort of record, and with repeated listening this record began to grow on me . . .

AGIB is not a typical concept album, in that there is no consistent thread that ties all the songs together, although the singer does focus on how he relates to himself and to those around him. As I listened to this record, I realized that many of us spend a good deal of time trying to understand how we relate (and sometimes don’t relate) to others. With the fast pace of life, we just don’t always get the time or the opportunity to talk to anyone at any great depth or length about some of our deepest thoughts and feelings.

Tweedy, who recently completed a stint in drug-rehab (he now openly acknowledges a long-term personal struggle with addiction to pain killers) has had some time to reflect and think; AGIB seems to be the product of some important personal time out. [Do you remember that old phrase, “stop and smell the roses”?] It also seems to be simply the journey of one person as he sings about the thoughts within his head. In the process, he lays his heart wide open for the entire world to hear.

AGIB is a lyrical and musical journey that draws the listeners in and bids them to share in this personal, heartfelt, honest and -- for the most part -- enjoyable ride.

Jim's Wilco blog comment here

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