Rock and Roll Feature: A Ghost is Born from Wilco

This is the twenty-fourth in a series of Rock & Roll features I'm writing for this site. I'm a rock and roller, so this column is a way for me to feature a different album that I like, from different genres every month.

Well last month's feature was a classic album, from the original metal founders straight out of Britain, Black Sabbath. And so for the feature this month... something completely different!

A more recent band, leaning towards the country, folk rock side of things, but also drifting into indie rock, and some noisy experimentation... a band that just happens to be from my hometown of Chicago IL (or around there). Wilco is the band, and the album I chose is not their most recently, but perhaps the most indicative of their crossing of genres... A Ghost is Born.

I don't know if I'd call this album my favorite Wilco album, but it is the first of theirs I heard (that was back when it was first released in 2004). Yeah, I know "indie rock enthusiasts" around the world just gasped and recoiled at my sacrilege... "A great indie band from YOUR HOMETOWN and you didn't know about them and their music till AFTER they'd already broken through to the mainstream?! And you claim to be interested in the indie and underground scenes... shame!" ::laughs uncontrollably for a few minutes:: ... yeah...funny... No offense to any "indie rockers" of course, just having a good laugh at some of the more absurd things I've encountered when discussing this band (and a few others as well).

As for my response to such claims...I don't think I "claim" to be anything, but maybe I can make amends by saying that I have since picked up all of Wilco's albums and can equally appreciate their early work as much as their more recognized and recent albums?

No huh? ::laughs for a while again:: ... ah... funny.

Well, although this album is one that received critical acclaim in mainstream markets, I could argue that it wasn't the one that "broke the band" through to the world.. and so I could also argue that although I did come to their music late, it was not a mere product of commercial success that I did. Or maybe I could make some other claims to defend my position (whatever it is... I don't even know what is being argued half the time) or to reveal the absurdity of such arguments... Who knows, some people just like to criticize I guess.

Sacrilege aside, I think we can agree that Wilco is a great band, and that A Ghost is Born is one of the most interesting albums from their catalog. And THAT is why it has earned it's place as this months rock and roll feature.

Let us start with a brief look at Wilco as a band. Their sound from the very start is heavily influenced by folk... kinda a country alternative, with the great songwriting of Jeff Tweedy at it's heart. They have not been a band to stick purely to that formula though, with albums hinting at power pop, soul... and more atmospheric and experimental moments. When I first heard this album, I was actually quite surprised at how it sounded, expecting something completely different from reviews and how people raved about it. Those expectations caused it to take a little longer than normal for this band to grow on me, but Tweedy's songwriting really comes through no matter how the songs are arranged. And even if different styles are experimented with, Wilco never really sounds like they're "trying to experiment". They still sound like them, and the unique touches sound both natural and appropriate for the moods of the songs.

Starting off with "At Least That's What You Said", one of my favorite tracks off this album, it's obvious that the focus is on the songwriting. With soft piano and very soft guitar "tinkling" in the background, a melancholy mood is set that reaches straight for the heart from the first notes. About a third of the way in though, the song changes, trading piano for this gritty, rough, sharp guitar riff that puts the song over the top and into a bluesy/garage rock-esque, emotional groove with this melody that floats through. And THEN that guitar is spitting streams of noisy improvisation over the piano chords... harmonics and fuzz flying. It's an odd contrast, the sharpness and roughness of the guitar with the purity and subtleties of the melody, but it seems to capture all the emotion of this song perfectly. This song, and particularly the use of guitar tone throughout were one of the first things to really strike me... just a great use noise, fuzz and contrast.

"Hell is Chrome" starts off with a just a touch of honky tonk piano before descending more into a heavy bluesy ballad. That awesome guitar roughness from the first track makes an appearance again with these ringing shards of discord in the solo section... they are startlingly sparse parts, but can really get the hair standing up on the back of your neck.

"Spiders (Kidsmoke)" is one of the most compelling songs from this album, and not just because it clocks in around 9-10 minute running time. With it's pulsing, almost electronic, machinelike grove it seems like something else entirely for a band so rooted in folk traditions. Tweedy's voice though, coupled with more sparse and noisy guitar bits, seems to push this song forward, like it's building even though for the most part the parts aren't exactly building at all. Sure enough though, when it erupts into this soaring, descending chorus section, it truly feels massive. This one is another personal favorite of mine.

The folksy finger-picked guitar of "Muzzle of Bees" is more about channeling the work of people like Bob Dylan and Woodie Guthrie than the previous two. They meld it with their more alt country styling to create a song that is catchy, lively and compelling start to finish. I especially like the arrangement and how it builds on this track, especially the use of fuzz guitar feedback and layering towards the end.

"Hummingbird" is a sweet, poppy and tuneful piano driven number with great sweeping melody throughout to match Tweedy's lyrics, giving the track a feel almost something like a great movie soundtrack... oh and the kazoo, if that is indeed kazoo I hear, a welcome addition. "Handshake Drugs" is equally catchy and compelling, but not as playful, leaning more towards a swaying, hand clapping, foot tapping, rock and roll good time. Just a great song through and through.

"Wishful Thinking" has more atmospheric and experimental touches from the very start, but recedes to expose a gentle ballad at it's core. The additional textures sort of surrounding this central idea and creating a dreamy backdrop. A disjointed beat starts off the folksy "Company in My Back", but layers of sound build it up to create another powerfully sweeping track with plenty of soul. I don't know how to describe it exactly, but I really dig the feel on this song... it just works really well with the lyrics, all the layers of sound and little touches, they all add up to a great whole.

"I'm a Wheel" is the rocker of the album, channeling a touch of garage rock to up the energy level, while "Theologians" is another catchy piano driven pop tune. Both are great tunes that fit in really well with the rest in both style and feel.

And then comes "Less Than You Think"...

Starting off as a slow ballad, "Less Than You Think" is actually probably the most overtly experimental track on the album. Clocking in at around 15 minutes, it starts off sweet and innocently, but is concluded with a length exploration of atmospheric sounds, textures and layers that build up and then recede... both born from, and descending into white noise. On first listen it might not make a whole lot of sense, even if it is somewhat artistically compelling. To me, this noisy interlude serves to sort of sever the previous song from the one that follows, making "The Late Greats" sound much more like a conclusive coda with it's catchy melodies and sing-along, clap-along quality.

And quite a coda it is...

This final track is another personal favorite of mine, and not just because it serves as a great closer to the album, but because it's engaging and inviting while also sort of combining all the bits that make up the entire album into a single song. I especially like the lyrics of this one as whether explicitly or not, they seem to really embody what Wilco is all about as a band and why they have had such a strong following in the indie rock scene for years.

Add all those songs up and you have a engaging and compelling album from first note to last.

Although each of the tracks that make up this album sound great on their own, I really they work best as a whole. I say that kind of thing a lot about all sorts of albums, preferring to often think of things in terms of concepts as opposed to songs, but this time it's different. Instead of an overarching concept, these songs seem to be more different shades of the same thing... the same band that doesn't necessarily NEED to have overarching concepts, because their sound, songwriting and unique style seem to handle it automatically. Its as if they can't help but always sound like Wilco no matter the style of song.

I think a lot of this feeling has to do with Jeff Tweedy's genuinely engaging songwriting. It's one of the main reasons I really like Wilco, as I'm sure is true of a lot of their fans. The band then just has great talent for interpreting that engaging quality and making it that much more authentic... that more compelling... that much more power and complex, so each listen brings new things.

It isn't just true of this album either, as I think it's worth noting that when I listen to all of Wilco's major albums, I don't hear anything that really stands out as strange or obscure. As I mentioned earlier, they experiment with new ideas, but never in a way that sounds overtly like "experimentation"... everything sounds very natural. You can compare individual songs from the early days to their later days and find some relatively sharp contrasts, but when taking albums as whole works, they seem to blend together quite well... again, like different shades of the same thing... of Tweedy's songwriting. Some people might claim this album was their foray into more experimental ideas, but I don't see it as that sharp a division.

This album is definitely a standout, but it's a standout among standouts, not a standout as their best or worst or of a particular new genre. Just another unique bunch of recordings that demonstrates the kind of music they want to make, and have been making for a while now.

Each fan will surely find their own favorite, but if you've never listened to Wilco before, I don't think you could go wrong starting with A Ghost is Born. Then again you couldn't go wrong starting with their first album, or with their first album, or the amazing double album Being There either. Oh, and their latest, Sky Blue Sky, that one's pretty great too.

I can't really say that EVERYONE will become an instant Wilco convert after checking them or this album out. Their style is definitely unique and a bit more mellow than some people might anticipate, while a bit to gruff and rough around the edges for others. Still, I think they're a great band with great songwriting and creativity and many people will really become enamored with their music.

So, if you're a long time Wilco fan, maybe it's time to take another listen to A Ghost is Born and rediscover a great album. Or if you're new to them and are committing sacrilege (like I did) by coming to their music now that they're relatively well known and "in the mainstream"... then this is a killer album to check out... as are all their others.

And if by chance you really have never heard anything by Wilco before... I think if you like indie rock, folk rock... that kind of stuff... they're definitely a band, and A Ghost is Born is definitely an album, you need to check out.

You can check out this album from Amazon directly here: A Ghost Is Born

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