Thursday, January 20, 2005

Kat's Korner: Wilco's A Ghost Is Born

I always liked Wilco, as a live band. They play real music, they have energy and you get caught up in their enjoyment. But as a recording band, they've always left me, if not unimpressed, unmoved.

My general feeling was, yeah, the Cruzados did that. A long time ago.

Wilco's base is devoted and try saying that in a bar. Only order a shot of whiskey first because you'll need the courage.

As much as I loved them as a live band (which I did and do), as recording artists, they never really made it for me. A few weekends ago, when Maggie was suffering yet another break up and Iwan and I were trying to cheer her up, he puts on A Ghost Is Born. There's no mistaking it for anyone else but Wilco -- almost insulting to say because it's so superior to anything they've ever done.

This isn't a great Wilco album, it's a great album. For the first time ever, the influences don't overwhelm their own output. No longer are a group of boys trying to act like Dean or Brando or Travolta or Leo or whomever's been dubbed by the fickle finger of pop culture fate. These are men rising above their influences and making a statement and sound that is unique only to them.

Yes, it does appear that Tweedy's been listening to Tim Buckley -- specifically Goodbye and Hello. That's something that's escaped all the so-called music lovers who wrote such "knowledge" reviews. (I've had 16 different reviews e-mailed me to by Common Ills members. Thanks for sharing, but not one of those self-important voices knew what they were talking about as they recycled "shout outs" from press kits and past reviews.)

Tweedy's even doing a similar thing to Buckley in terms of range. Check out "Carnival" on Goodbye and Hello and compare it to what Tweedy is doing on "Hell Is Chrome." (I find the music to "Spiders" more similar to the music of "Carnival.") Maybe by going with a less obvious influence, they were able to do something completely different? I mean the number of bands trying to redo Pet Sounds, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper's, et al is . . . well, pretty much everyone.

his goal in life was to be an echo
riding alone, town after town, toll after toll
a fixed bayonet through the great southwest
to forget her

she appears
in his dreams
but in his car, and in his arms
a dream could mean anything
a cheap sunset on a television set could upset her
but he never could

The entire album is an echo. Not of Tim Buckley, and certainly not of every band Wilco's been compared to in the past. But it feels like an echo of our own lives. They lyrics are certainly open to interpretation but there's enough there to indicate our own lives.

Snot dripping from her nose and tears streaming down her face, Maggie stopped her wailing long enough to look up and ask, "What's that?"

I'd completely forgotten she was in the room and was so into the music that she had to repeat herself. While Iwan was filling her in, I was wishing I had a headphones on to concentrate on the music.

I bought the CD that same day and I still find myself feeling selfish when people start talking when it's on. There's something so emotionally bare about the music that, if it touches you, makes you want to tell the world to shut the hell up and just listen.

I'm a wheel
I will
turn on you


I'm a wheel, I will
I'm a wheel, I will
I'm a wheel, I will
turn on you

turn on you turn on you turn on you turn on turn

Maybe they've never heard Buckley (though I doubt it) but he achieved that with "Once I Was a Soldier" -- that haunting sound that was part music, part floating space. Call it the anti-wall of sound, but Wilco's got it here. And just when you're floating along and reflecting, the rhythm picks up and carries you a little further. To use sixties jargon, this album is a trip.

And it's one you should book yourself on. Wilco's been the next bit thing for so long, it's easy to turn on them, to look at the state of radio and think, "Why didn't you get it together and send all the posers packing?" It's because we're all so trained to think in terms of who's got the bullet, who's the greatest gainers, who shipped X number of units. As the mind boggles with all those statistics, it's easy to lose sight of the purpose of buying an album. It's not so we can flash the CD to our friends and say, "Got it!" These aren't posters we hang on our walls or jerseys we pull over our heads. This is music.

And maybe Wilco will find the huge audience they deserve at some point and maybe they won't. But this album is solid. And the fact that people have been rooting for them (intensely) for so long may actually help you. There's probably someone you know who has a copy of this. Ask around. Borrow it, give it a listen.

I defy you to listen to "Hand Shake Drug" and not move around the room. Even Maggie had to wipe her nose, get off her knees and start shaking it to that song. There we were in her living room, Iwan, Maggie and me, dancing around, lost in the music. Nodding at one another to the beat.

Maggie begged Iwan to leave the album with her so she could listen some more. Just "borrowing," you understand. But Maggie never returns. I could see Iwan hesitate and I honestly didn't blame him. Feeling anything was better than another tear and sob filled phone call from Maggie, he relented.

But I also wasn't surprised as we were rolling down the road when he announced that we were stopping. He bought another copy, I bought one for myself.

So borrow from a friend, but don't be a Maggie! -- return it, and see if it doesn't move you and speak to you. See if you're not suprised by the music that quietly and gently replaces the drone of "Handshake Drugs" as "Wishful Thinking" comes on. Song after song will surprise you. Speak to you for reasons you might not even realize at first. But A Ghost Is Born will haunt you. Let it haunt you.

the best songs will never get sung
the best life never leaves your lungs
so good you won't even know
you'll never hear it on the radio
can't hear it on the radio

Probably not in most areas of the nation. But you can hear it on your CD player. The news of 2004 was that Wilco finally arrived. They finally turned in their must-have, classic album.
But the news was a whisper. Pass it around softly in 2005 to trusted friends you feel should be "in the know."