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May 21, 2004

Its no Foxtrot, but Wilco shuffles with style on Ghost

Let me preface this review by saying that the new Wilco album will not be officially released for about a month. That said, it might seem a bit premature for me to be reviewing an album that won't see the light of day until June 22. Not so, however. As is the case with most highly anticipated albums released in our era of Soulseek and Kazaa, A Ghost is Born, Wilco's fifth studio album, was leaked online just after the final mixes for the record were completed. So, in actuality, this review is about a month and a half past due.

Wilco is a band that has fully embraced this epoch of musical free trade and has, in the process, thrived. As their sound has become increasingly sophisticated and willfully obscure, their celebrity (though still minor) has grown. Most anyone who pays attention to popular music knows the story behind Wilco's previous album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Assuming some previous knowledge, I will briefly summarize: band completes ingeniously diverse, fuzzed-out alt-country album in 2001; album is considered too challenging by label and band is subsequently dropped; band streams album on website while searching for new distributor; buzz builds to breaking point when album is finally released in April 2002; fans and critics alike cream their collective pants; album sells the most copies of any previous Wilco album. And they all (minus Jay Bennett) lived happily ever after.

Either purposefully or accidentally, Wilco did everything exactly right. They decided to make a record on their own terms, and everyone loved it; they proved evil label executives wrong by releasing their most popular album to date; they had the foresight to give permission for a documentary to be made of their recording process (I am Trying to Break Your Heart), which only further mythologized the band and its frontman, Jeff Tweedy. Perhaps most importantly, Wilco took advantage of the ease of free musical distribution, essentially respecting their fans enough to give them the completed album early and trusting that they would eventually buy the finished product. Which they did in droves.

The members of Wilco have been very busy since the release of Foxtrot, and their profile has only become more pronounced as a result. Since the recording of the album, Chicago's finest have toured the world; released an online EP, a DVD, and albums from several side projects; lost three members (Ken Coomer pre-recording, Jay Bennett during recording, Leroy Bach post-recording); gained four more (Glenn Kotche, Mikael Jorgensen, Pat Sansone, Nels Cline); released a book of poetry (by Jeff Tweedy); and gone to rehab for prescription painkillers (again, Jeff Tweedy). Finally, the band started playing some shows this week, and already we have so much to talk about.

Not the least of which is Wilco's new LP, which the band smartly decided to stream from their website (Wilcoworld.net) after incomplete versions of the album began making their way through cyberspace. In another great publicity coup for the band, a fan decided to turn the guilt of music pirating into a philanthropic venture, urging fans to donate money to a charity of Wilco's choosing through the site Justafan.org. While Metallica whines about getting their cut, Wilco gives thousands of dollars to Doctors Without Borders. What more do you want from your pet rock band?

Well, maybe a great new album, and Wilco delivers that too. Today, I consider myself a big Wilco fan, but only since the release of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Since then, I have traced the band back to its origins, from the straight-up alternative country of A.M. to the history of rock presented on Being There, to the electric-folk Woody Guthrie tributes of the Mermaid Avenue albums, to the dark pop sheen of Summer Teeth. For me, Foxtrot is the reigning pinnacle of Wilco's distinguished career, and the band wisely borrows heavily from it on A Ghost is Born. Although Ghost does not reside on a higher peak than Foxtrot, it does show Wilco at its most comfortable, which allows for some of their best and loosest material yet.

Besides wonderful songwriting, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was renowned for the revelatory marriage of tired alt-country and studio experimentation, as Wilco employed Radiohead-esque techniques to add fuzz, crackle, and dead space in between the cracks of their shambling country-rock folk-pop songs. The producer of that album, Jim O'Rourke, is again twisting the knobs for Ghost, but he feels less involved this time around. If Foxtrot was Wilco's graduate thesis, showing off how much they've learned, then Ghost presents the band with a lucrative job, fully aware of their abilities and not afraid to occasionally goof off at their desks because they know that the boss won't fire them.

Cases in point are the ambitious lengths of arguably the band's most challenging songs to date, the 10-minute "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" and the 15-minute "Less Than You Think." "Spiders" lopes along on the metronome-steady beat of drums and synth, with Jeff Tweedy waxing poetic about spiders filling out tax returns on the Michigan shore. Tweedy's cryptic lyrics are interrupted by his most deliciously amateurish guitar-playing yet; think of those solos from "I'm the Man Who Loves You" and take away any semblance of traditional guitarist skill. The song is bolstered by sudden bursts of band unity when bass, guitar, drums, and keys all thunder toward mini-climaxes.

"Less Than You Think" is much more traditional, at least for its first three minutes. A piano ballad accented with strings and Tweedy's subtle guitar, the song comes to an indefinite close before drifting intoÂ…the hum of a descending UFO? A flock of angry hummingbirds? The buzz of the new album's press corps? Whatever it is, it gradually builds in volume and complexity, finally reaching a crescendo after 12 minutes. God forgive those who put this on a mix tape.

These two songs, however, are the most obvious testaments to the O'Rourke influence, and even they work well. While the studio felt like the all-star on Foxtrot, Wilco the band takes the cake on Ghost, particularly Jeff Tweedy. His songwriting is not as stellar as on the previous album, but his unique guitar solos are, and they fill the spaces previously occupied by studio gimmickry. Generally, Wilco lean toward their rock side on the album, favoring Being There guitar dominance to Summer Teeth pop production. Although they do both equally well, the rock format allows them to really let their hair down, often jamming as a band without the touch of the studio or Tweedy's lyrics.

Opening track "At Least That's What You Said" begins as a hoarsely whispering guitar and piano ballad that erupts into a three-minute Skynyrd-esque finale. Similarly, "Muzzle of Bees" gets turned on its head with some mean guitar feedback layered on top of a pretty acoustic lick. Several songs are straight-ahead rock from start to finish, with "Handshake Drugs" (the only song taken from the More Like the Moon EP) and "Company in My Back" being standouts. Rumbling along on taut grooves, it is no wonder that these songs were live staples long before they were recorded for the album.

A Ghost is Born is not as ambitious, or as good, as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. However, Ghost makes up for a lack of diversity with cohesion, as each song showcases a band playing to its strengths. This album simply feels more live and lived-in, as if the band were using the studio as a tool rather than its entire palette. Wilco is more of a band (in the truest sense of the word) than ever before, and one of which its fans can be proud. We now see that their finely crafted music comes part and parcel with innovation and a sense of adventure, which seems to appear in everything that they do. I guess they're starting to get a reputation for that.