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Hold On, Oh You Risk Exciting Me.
Jun 20, 2004 (Updated Jun 21, 2004)
Review by David Martin
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Pros:Diverse musical approach; "Muzzle of Bees" and "I'm a Wheel" are definite gems.
Cons:Frustratingly quiet stretches in a few songs and some more gratuitous noise. Those things just ain't my bag.
The Bottom Line: I still don't "get it" with these guys. Maybe I'm not supposed to. But for some reason, I keep trying, and I'll give Wilco credit for holding my interest long enough to do that.
Alright, Wilco fans. I gave you a pretty big headstart. The new album was leaked to the Internet what, two months ago? Maybe three. Sure, there are plenty of places on the Internet to post thoughts on something like this - I know y'all are generally an web-savvy bunch, given how widely circulated these new songs are by this point, less than a week before the album's official release. Still, I figured at least one person would beat me to the punch here at Epinions. I really wanted one of you to, honestly. I wanted the first crack at this egg to be taken by somebody who knew and loved and understood Wilco. But instead it'll be coming from me, the guy who was mostly bewildered by Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and who started to warm up to the band a little bit more after checking out Summerteeth late last year. I guess all I can do is try my best to be fair, but either way, I figure I've gotta jump on this one before its release date.
Recommend this product?
I'll be upfront and admit that I was rather shortsighted in last year's critique of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. I really didn't know what to expect from Wilco. Glowing recommendations from friends led me to believe that they were meant to be some sort of an out-there, artsy sort of band, and so I totally overused the word "art" in my attempt to support a needless notion of their being "the American Radiohead". Worse still, I criticized them for trying too hard to sound "indie" due to the muted nature of a lot of their songs. And then I went and scoffed at what I thought was pseudo-religious content in their lyrics. Yeah, I'm pretty sure I p!ssed a few of you off with that one. So, to the extent that I can, I'll do my best to knock it off with the assumptions this time around. Let's pretend that I've never heard of Radiohead, that I know nothing about Wilco's underdog-hero story of getting their last album rejected by their old label only for it to become a hit upon being picked up by a smaller one, and that I've never read a review over at Pitchforkmedia.com. This is just about me, whatever incarnation of A Ghost Is Born was leaked to the Internet a few months back, and my impressions of said songs. Fair enough?
I suppose a bit of a preface is in order for those who have no clue what I'm talking about. My prior experience with Wilco involves the aforementioned Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Summerteeth. While Wilco has been called an "alt-country" band by some, I'm really not getting the reasoning behind that one. YHF, while it has its acoustic undertones, seemed to derive a lot of its intrigue from its muted (and sometimes muddled) vocals and percussion, and the knob-twiddling that painted many of the songs with hints of electronic color, occasionally overcoming them with pure noise. I could see folk/rock being a fitting tag in a few cases, but not alt-country. Summerteeth, while it had the same constant of Jeff Tweedy's raw vocals, took on a deceptively summery pop feel on many of its songs, thanks to the well-timed use of synthesizers (an instrument that I normally fear). Throughout both albums, cryptic lyrics seemed to be a common thread, and even though I may have gotten a little too caught up in insisting that I had to know the meaning of every song, I do still maintain that deciphering some of the oblique lines is part of the fun. And A Ghost Is Born doesn't skimp on those lyrics. Just about every song is infused - however subtly - with the delightful sense of craziness that one gets when doing a double taking and asking "Did he just say what I think he just said?" Soundwise, it's not too far removed from YHF, though I am noticing a distinct focus on the piano, as well as a few other keyboard-like instruments. There are still moments where the songs are frustratingly muted or excessively noisy, and the odd pacing of the album can leave me feeling a bit irritated when I'm not in the right mood, but it sounds to me like it'd be up your alley if you enjoyed YHF.
At Least That's What You Said
I thought it was cute for you to kiss my purple black eye
Even though I caught it from you...
Frustrating quietness. It was one of my chief complaints on YHF, and I'm guessing it's just a part of who Wilco is at this point. There's probably a decent reason for having an impossibly muted guitar as the lone instrument during the verses of this song, and for Jeff to be singing in a hushed tone about a lover with whom he appears to be on bad terms. (This is all speaking figuratively, of course - I say these things are happening to him, but I'm really just personifying whatever the song appears to be about.) She seems to be giving him mixed signals, saying one thing and really meaning another, which leads him to confusion about whether they are in fact still serious. Once I've strained to catch that little story, the song suddenly shifts gears, inserted a prominent guitar lick that becomes the basis for the rest of the song as the band erupts into two or three minutes of instrumental jamming, complete with some tasty drum fills from Glenn Kotche. I appreciate the contrast of moods, and I appreciate finally learning that Wilco can rock out in their own unorthodox way. I just don't appreciate having to adjust the volume level up and then back down within the same song in order to find out what the heck's going on.
Hell Is Chrome
The air was crisp, like sunny late winter days
A springtime yawning high in the haze
And I felt like I belonged...
A happy-go-lucky piano intro only serves to mislead the listener here, as the song manages to collapse into near oblivion once again by the time Jeff's vocals show up. Once again, what he's singing about is interesting, since he sounds like describing the devil and temptation in metaphorical terms (the color of chrome vs. red), but the way he pauses and leaves empty space between the lines of the first verse just kills the momentum of the song. OK, so this track is supposed to be a slow burner. I can kind of get into the groove of it as it slowly starts to build again, incorporating more subdued electric guitar parts and the repeatedly crooned line "Come to me", the same way that I can sometimes get into one of Coldplay's less immediately noticeable songs - but there just doesn't appear to be much payoff at the end. I can see how this song might be meant to give up its goods with repeated listening, but I've probably been through it 10 or 20 times by now, and I can't seem to have any reaction other than "Get on with it!" most of the time.
Why can't they say what they want
Why can't they just say what they mean
Come clean, listen and talk
Hello private callers, IDs blocked...
Wow. Ten minutes. Now who in the world puts a ten-minute song on track three of their album? Okay, so prog-rock bands do it all the time. But prog-rock isn't Wilco's thing. Taking the loose structure of a song and stretching it like taffy over a long period of time does seem to work for them, though. What we get here is a perky, insistent drumbeat and some vibey electric keyboards that pretty much stick around for the entire song, occasionally being interrupted by out-there guitar solos reminiscent of "I'm the Man Who Loves You", my favorite track on YHF. There's even an instrumental chorus which announces itself forcefully and really succeeds in lodging itself in the listener's memory - it's a good thing when you can do that and be unorthodox at the same time, right? Jeff makes sure to insert his strange ramblings every now and then, mostly about the activity of spiders and something about "a private beach in Michigan". I actually like the language he's using here - not that I can make heads or tails of things such as "telescopic poems" or "winging birds fighting for the keys", but simply because it's insane in the most lovable way possible. Who knows, maybe it all means something - I don't think Jeff is being entirely random. Then again, I get the feelings that these songs are more about mood and abstract thought than communicating a clear agenda. I'm cool with that. Ten minutes might seem a bit excessive, but I won't level that accusation against Wilco this time - between the strange lyrics and the guitar solos, they've managed to keep my attention through the entirety of it.
Muzzle of Bees
I'm assuming you got my message on your machine
I'm assuming you love me, and you know what that means...
By this point, Wilco seems to finally be hitting their stride. It's clear from looking at the album credits that there is a lot of instrumental talent in this band - it seems like hardly any of the members do just one thing. That much is evident in this delicate, beautiful song, built on a flowing guitar line that vaguely reminds me of Jars of Clay's "River Constantine". Jeff's words, while as cryptic as ever, seem to evoke memories of a happy summertime far in the past as he sings about climbing trees and dogs barking and breezes and leaves. And of course, there's the song's title, which shows up in the first line - "There's a random painted highway, and a muzzle of bees." When the band kicks it up a notch and it starts to sound like there's more than one acoustic guitar in the mix, it's almost like each individual note being picked is one of those angry bees, swarming about you after having its hive disturbed. Adding to the song are neat little splashes of piano and trumpet... Dang, this is good stuff. I might even say that it's as memorable as some of my favorite moments on Summerteeth.
His goal in life was to be an echo
The type of sound that floats around
And then back down like a feather...
Another bouncy piano melody leads the way, and fortunately the tempo stays up for this one, seemingly affecting Jeff's normally downtrodden vocals. You can almost hear him smile, even as he sings about a guy who purpose was only "to be an echo". Once again, the concept of memory is in play here, as if this guy is pleading with a girl, hoping that she won't forget him. Once again, we have a song rich with natural imagery, depicting the guy's loneliness as he falls asleep under the stars and remembers the girl... honestly, it's described in a more eloquent and less cheesy way than I can manage in summarizing it. And just like the bees in the last song, you can almost see that little hummingbird zooming about, especially when a lively viola breaks in near the end. Add to that a few other flavorful splashes, most notably a hammer dulcimer, and you've got yourself another winner. (It's notable that the word "chrome" comes up again in this song, used to describe the city of Manhattan - perhaps there's some culture shock between city and country going on here that is causing the estrangement between these two people?)
Oh, I was chewin' gum for something to do
The blinds were being pulled down on the dew
Inside, out of love, what a laugh
I was looking for you...
This song seems to have definitely traded the country for the city. It starts off simply with a gentle, bass-driven groove - nothing too heavy, just an unassuming soundtrack for a stroll along the sidewalk, not too far from a song like "Kamera". This song sounds like the theme of a man who is out of his element but trying desperately to blend into a busy city lifestyle with saxophones and taxicabs and all sorts of other sources of noise. While I kind of chastised the band unnecessarily on the last album for lyrics that made reference to smoking and drugs, I think I can understand the drug reference in this song's refrain ("The handshake drugs I bought downtown") as possibly referring to the affirmation of other people. Jeff keeps referring to not being himself in this song, and later, he asks, "Exactly what do you want me to be?" It's like he's addicted to those "handshakes" and he has to act fake in order to get them. It could be a veiled stab at a former label or the music industry in general. In any case, I won't criticize Wilco for not being normal. I like the ambience that the guitar noise (at least I'm assuming it's coming from a guitar) creates as the song harmlessly ambles along, but I do have to say that the way it eventually degenerates into nothing but that noise at the end is a bit of a test of my patience. I'm not sure why Wilco has this fetish for white noise, but it definitely isn't working for me.
I shook down those lines
To shine up the streets
I got up off my hands and knees
To thank my lucky stars that you're not me...
What's this... Wilco ends the last track with noise, and then they have to go off and start this one with another minute of noise before it finally congeals into a structured song? OK, so maybe the "noise" is there to set the mood - I am getting a picture of a gloomy, rainy day when I listen to this one. Much like "Radio Cure", this song is very soft-spoken, with the soft thumping of drums keeping the beat even though they're quiet enough to have almost no purpose in being there. Faint piano and organ seem to be the main instrumental factors, and the focus is unsurprisingly on Jeff's vocals, which are thankfully not as hungover-sounding as "Radio Cure". He seems to be pondering the conflict between fantasy and reality here, and once he again he gives us strange details about his "wishful thinking" - there are "Chambers of chains with red plastic mouths", "An embarrassing poem", and "Hell in a nutshell". It all seems to sum up the difference between wanting someone and actually having them. I might feel more compelled by the song if it had some musical meat to it, but as it is, it floats by just like one of those fleeting dreams.
Company in My Back
Hide your soft skin, your sorrow is sunshine
Listen to my eyes...
Here's another one that'll make you think these guys should be locked up in padded cells. Not that that's a bad thing - it's just that I can't help but have a confused reaction when someone takes a peppy and easygoing musical piece filled with wonderful instrumentation and matches it up with lyrics that sound an awful lot like the ramblings of a madman. I mean, "Listen to my eyes"? "They are hissing radiator tunes"? "Pre bug beauty"? Clearly Jeff is surprised and mad about something when the realization hits him in the chorus - "I move so slow, a steady crushing hand/Holy sh*t, there's a company in my back!" Um, how can you have a company in your back, dude? Do you mean that they're like, hanging out on your back porch? Or are they literally buried in your back, like being stabbed in the back with a knife? Actually, that second interpretation would make a lot of sense, but maybe that's just me fantasizing about all of these unorthodox musical heroes telling record companies where they can stick it. Admittedly, I'm a bit annoyed at having the word "sh*t" in the chorus of a song, but a the same time, it's kind of funny to contrast that with the gleeful hammer dulcimer solo that chimes in afterwards. There's even an instrument called the "stylophone" in this song - whatever the heck that is!
I'm a Wheel
Oh, I invented a sister
Populated with knives...
I mentioned earlier that Wilco could rock when they wanted to, and that it was fun to hear them do it even though I didn't expect it on every track. I guess they're appeasing me here, because this song is two-and-a-half minutes of seemingly pointless fun. It wastes no time getting revved up with the guitars and drums, playing like a page from the classic rock history book, but somehow seeming a lot more demented. I don't think I've ever heard a lyric from these guys that was as inane as "One, two, three four, five, six, seven, eight, nine/Once in Germany someone said 'nein'", or one as potentially menacing as "I invented a sister populated with knives." (Though Jeff did dream about killing a girl in the song "Via Chicago". ) All I can say for sure is that I love the groove that this song builds off of, and the way Jeff starts to wig out near the end, repeating, "I'm gonna turn on you, turn on you, turn on you!" And then we get an unexpected sudden ending. Coolness.
Inlitterati lumen fidei
God is with us everyday
That illiterate light
Is with us every night...
Heh. I should've seen this one coming. Wilco apparently had some confused reaction from some of the "spiritual" material on YHF, specifically the song "Jesus, Etc.", which dunces like me took as actually being about Jesus. Their response? "Theologians, they don't know nothing about my soul." Point taken, I guess. While I can't say that this medium-paced piano romp does much for me musically (though there is a rockier break in the middle that changes the mood up nicely), it is a point of interest lyrically, since it's the song that provided the album's title: "No one's ever gonna take my life from me/I lay it down, a ghost is born". Jeff asserts that he is "a cherry ghost", whatever that means. I probably shouldn't take the bait and try to dissect this one as some sort of a theological statement on the band's behalf, given how I always find out that none of Wilco's songs are what I think they are.
Less Than You Think
It's almost gone, the night is dissolving
In a cup God lifts to toast the lightning...
This mellow track feels like it should be the last thing on the album, since it's another sparse ballad, and in some ways, it reminds me of "Reservations". If you take the actual "song" portion of this track on its own, it's not a bad piece of work - it's cryptic as usual, but the lyrics seem to contain a sort of hope and clarity as they mention a fist that "Punches a hole in the sky so you can see for yourself". But as the three minute mark approaches and Jeff signs off with the final words, "There's so much less to this than you think", we find out that the joke is on us, as a song that we'd have expected to be an epic due to its fifteen-minute play time turns out to be nothing but an increasingly noisy mess of sounds, with pretty much everyone throwing in loops and synths, making it sound as if radio frequencies are interfering with each other or something. This goes on for twelve minutes, folks. Now, I'm no expert - for all I know, some people find something incredibly intriguing about such a chaotic mess. But I think it's safe to say that sustaining it for this long is a bit excessive, especially when it's placing a massive canyon in between one song and the rest of the album.
The Late Greats
The best band will never get signed
K-Settes starring Butcher's Blind
Are so good, you won't ever know
They never even played a show
You can't hear 'em on the radio...
At long last, the final song arrives, and it's a surprisingly upbeat one, not so much in tempo but definitely in mood. It's a carefree tribute to the unsung heroes of the music industry, the great bands that hardly anyone ever gets to hear. If anyone has the right to express such a sentiment, I'd give it to Wilco, since they've seen the ugly side of life as a signed band (though they are of course still signed, just by someone else). Ironically, the song is one of the album's most immediately accessible, and certainly the only track where the lyrics make perfect sense to me. (That's not a bad thing on the part of the other songs, just an observation.) It's a really weird song to place at the end - actually, it feels like more of a hidden track that's just separated from everything else by useless noise instead of silence. But it's a keeper, and I think it would be absolutely hilarious if this song ever ended up getting any radio play. Hey, enough people like Wilco, so you've gotta admit it's at least remotely possible.
All told, I don't know if I'm actually gonna spring for a real copy of this one when it releases on Tuesday. Maybe if I find it cheap somewhere down the road - but then, I've been saying that about YHF for over a year now. I've kind of developed this new system (which you'll see below) of evaluating the rough value of an album based on what I think of the individual songs - really good ones are worth the most money (two bucks), on down to the songs that do nothing for me and are therefore worth nothing, and the songs that are a real hindrance to the album (minus fifty cents). If I find the album for below the price I find it to be worth, then I guess I'll spring for it. Anyway, you existing Wilco fans will probably warm up to this one without too much trouble - it's challenging in the way it probably has been for you with each new album before this. Anyone new to the band - well, from what I've heard so far, I can at least recommend Summerteeth as a good starting point. If you like that, maybe you can "graduate" to this one later. They have shown an amazing diversity of musical know-how with each album that I've checked out, so if you can appreciate that and don't mind having to strain to hear some of it and wade through stretches of dullness or all-out weirdness, than you might take to the band more easily than I have.
At Least That's What You Said $1
Hell Is Chrome $0
Spiders (Kidsmoke) $1
Muzzle of Bees $2
Handshake Drugs $.50
Wishful Thinking $0
Company in My Back $.50
I'm a Wheel $2
Less Than You Think -$.50
The Late Greats $.50
CONCLUSION: I'd pay half price for it. It's worth having around for when I'm in the very specific mood for something like this.
Jeff Tweedy: Vocals, acoustic & electric guitars, acoustic bass, loops, filters & synths
John Stirratt: Bass, electric guitar, background vocals, loops, filters & synths
Glenn Kotche: Drums, hammer dulcimer, loops, filters & synths
Leroy Bach: Piano, organ, vibes, acoustic guitar, loops, filters & synths
Mikael Jorgensen: Synthesizer, piano, rocksichord, farfisa organ, stylophone
Jim O'Rourke: Piano, bass, acoustic & electric guitars, loops, filters & synths
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Wilco: Jeff Tweedy (12-string guitar, acoustic bass guitar); John Stirratt (piano, bass guitar); Mike Jorgensen (keyboards); Leroy Bach (vibraphone); ...
Wilco: Jeff Tweedy (12-string guitar, acoustic bass guitar); John Stirratt (piano, bass guitar); Mike Jorgensen (keyboards); Leroy Bach (vibraphone); ...