Friday, December 11, 2015

CD Odyssey Disc 809: Wilco

I have the day off today! Given that I finished all my Christmas shopping last week I’m looking forward to a relaxing day. I’m going to paint, and I might start a new novel that’s been floating around in my head for a little while now. But first, this review!

Disc 809 is….A Ghost is Born
Artist: Wilco

Year of Release: 2004

What’s up with the Cover? A cracked egg. The actual cover of this album is supposed to be the same egg, uncracked, but it is printed on a cardboard dustcover. I find those CD dustcovers a bother so I took them all off and stored them in a box somewhere. Rather than dig them out I’ll give you the post-ghost birth egg. At least I’ll assume it hatched a ghost; if it had been a bird it would be a lot messier.

How I Came To Know It: This was just me poking around Wilco’s back catalogue after I had discovered “A.M.”

How It Stacks Up:  I have four Wilco albums. “A Ghost is Born” is my least favourite of those four, but it was surprisingly close between it and “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.” As this is the last Wilco album I currently own up for review, here’s a recap:

  1. A.M.: 4 stars (reviewed way back at Disc 84)
  2. Being There: 4 stars (reviewed back at Disc 358)
  3. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot: 3 stars (reviewed back at Disc 755)
  4. A Ghost is Born: 3 stars (reviewed right here)
Ratings: 3 stars

Having stuck with Wilco through “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” “A Ghost is Born” was the album that ended my journey through Wilco’s discography when I first heard it. Listening to it again with fresh ears I think I was too harsh in my initial assessment.

The experimentation begun on “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” continues on “A Ghost is Born” and once again they get things started with one of the album’s least accessible songs. “At Least That’s What You Said” is half ambient dirge and half feedback-infused noodling and doesn’t get this record off on good footing. At least that’s what I say.

I sometimes feel like the independent-minded Wilco wants to drive away the casual listener, like a prof who only wants students in his class as excited about his subject area as he is.

The effort to do so continues on the next track, “Hell is Chrome” but – surprise twist! – it fails. “Hell is Chrome” is the kind of quiet and slow building track usually reserved for side two, thrust to the front of the record as if to scream, “love me for who I am now or just stop listening!” Fortunately, this song is a beautiful sleeper, where the lightly played piano and Jeff Tweedy’s half-whispered confessional are a perfect match. The song had me thinking about what all those bald weirdos from “Mad Max: Fury Road” would listen to. Not while they were out murdering folks and driving their cars around the desert, obviously. I mean after that, when they come down from the metallic paint they’ve been eating and get all introspective and morose contemplating the state of their post-apocalyptic world. I wonder if the film writer knew the song…?

But I digress.

Back to the record, which has a few other high points worth mentioned. “Handshake Drugs” is grounded in a very cool bass line which Wilco artfully doesn’t over-exploit as they tell the story of wandering through a city late at night and high as hell.

Wishful Thinking” is a love song, tinged with a self-awareness that makes it slightly less romantic but infinitely more honest. The song takes a while to get going, but the way the tune steps down as Tweedy sings “’cause what would love be without wishful thinking?” makes the wait worthwhile.

In many ways “A Ghost is Born” is ahead of its time, and has a lot in common with more recent indie rock, the way it strings together imagery that is loosely connected but lacks a complete narrative. Sometimes I liked this approach but I also found some of the lyrics lazy and directionless.

Musically, the melodies are cleverly constructed for the most part, but there are songs that take way too long to do way too little. “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” is over ten minutes long and while it has a funky beat and catchy guitar riff but both appear infrequently amid the detritus of feedback and aimless noodling). There just isn’t enough going on to justify it going on the way it does.

Less Than You Think” is exactly what its title promises, and not in a good way. This monstrosity is 15 minutes long and feels like 20. There is two and a half minutes of what I would call a song, followed by 10 minutes of ambient sound, occasional droning slowly building to a crescendo of…radio static? Then a final 2-3 minutes as the radio static fades away as pointlessly as it began.

I was so mad at being forced to listen to this damned song (see “The Rules” in the sidebar) that not even the album’s final track – a light-spirited ditty about undiscovered bands called “The Late Greats” – could fully pull me from my funk.

“A Ghost is Born” is a 67 minute album and it needs to be about 45, but there is enough good stuff here that it is still an album worth keeping. If you love “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” (as many do) you’ll probably love this record as well.

Best tracks:  Hell is Chrome, Handshake Drugs, Wishful Thinking, Theologians

No comments: