A Ghost Is Born

The Wilco File, Part 2

In Part 1 of our examination of Wilco’s discography, we began with a look at the origins of the band and finished with an analysis of their biggest commercial success.  Today, we take a look at the second half of Wilco’s career, as they emerge from their tumultuous early years and solidify into one of the most consistently riveting live acts in the country.

A Ghost Is Born Though Yankee Hotel Foxtrot would ultimately prove to be a high point for the band, the process took a toll on the group.  As the band dealt with the external difficulties that arose from their record label troubles, the group was also once again experiencing internal struggles, culminating with the departure of multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett.  In addition, Jeff Tweedy was coping with an addiction to painkillers stemming from his chronic migraines, which would affect the promotion of YHF‘s follow-up.

My entry point into Wilco was A Ghost Is Born, so I have always held it in higher esteem than most, but I still insist the album represents the band’s creative peak.  The band’s sonic explorations had a more clear focus, and instead of being merely ornamental flourishes, helped support the songs themselves, like the Krautrock-inspired “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”.  The album is loaded with some of the group’s best pure rock songs, from “Handshake Drugs” to “Theologians” to “At Least That’s What You Said”, the last of which features the most scintillating and inventive guitar playing of Jeff Tweedy’s career.  The tour in support of A Ghost Is Born also spurred the creation of one of the greatest live records of all time, Kicking Television, a two-disc compilation that served as an effective showcase of the genius underlying that album.

Sky Blue Sky With their record label situation fully resolved and a lineup finally settled, Wilco decided the time was right to relax a bit, and the result was the release of the laid-back Sky Blue Sky.  It is the ultimate lazy summer album, perfect for unwinding with a beer after toiling under the hot sun mowing the lawn, though chilling after engaging in hard labor is hardly necessary for enjoyment.  This is around the time when the band began to be tagged with the derisive label of “dad rock”, and though it is somewhat accurate in reflecting the nature of the music, it need not be taken as an insult.  Sometimes, the mood is just right for easygoing jams like “Either Way” or “Side with the Seeds”, though Sky Blue Sky does feature the most epic guitar jam of the group’s career, with the three-headed attack of “Impossible Germany”, led by Nels Cline’s impeccable lead playing.

Wilco (the Album) The band continued to mine the same vein of Sky Blue Sky with the release of Wilco (the Album), a record that at the time seemed like a fine addition to the Wilco catalog but has come to be regarded as one of their least essential recordings.  Cuts from the album have for the most part disappeared from the band’s setlist, and while there are several pleasant moments scattered throughout (ranging from the soaring “One Wing” to the beautiful “Everlasting Everything” to the restless “Bull Black Nova”), it rarely leaves a lasting impression on the listener.

The Whole Love Wilco switched gears with the wide-ranging and adventurous  The Whole Love, which saw the band scratching that itch for the experimental for the first time in years.  For the first time since A Ghost Is Born, it seemed the band decided to challenge themselves, an intention that is clear from the outset with the multi-part opener “Art of Almost”.  In addition, Wilco prove that they still have a playful side, as seen with the bouncy “Dawned on Me” and the goofy “I Might”, and that they are not afraid to cut loose, as they do with the boisterous “Standing O”.  In many ways, The Whole Love served as a perfect encapsulation of all facets of the Wilco sound.

There you have it.  Oh, because everyone likes lists, here is the definitive ranking of Wilco albums, which also doubles as a handy step-by-step guide to working through their back catalog.

  1. A Ghost Is Born
  2. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
  3. Summerteeth
  4. Being There
  5. The Whole Love
  6. A.M.
  7. Sky Blue Sky
  8. Wilco (the Album)
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Wilco, Live at Edgefield

Edgefield is easily one of the best venues in Oregon, and it is too bad that we were unable to see more shows there this summer.  However, if it ends up that we only make it out to Troutdale one time this year, Wilco certainly did their best to make it worthwhile.  The band entertained the sold-out crowd with a career-spanning, thirty song set that captured every aspect of the group’s sound.

If you look closely, the cat from the Star Wars cover is hanging out by Glen.

If you look closely, the cat from the Star Wars cover is hanging out by Glenn.

Wilco kicked off the show with a mini-set of their entire new album, Star Wars, entering the stage to the noisy opener “EKG” before playing straight through the entire record.  The crowd ate it up, with a fair portion having already memorized many of the lyrics from last month’s surprise release.  The new material translated well live, with the band staying faithful to the record, besides Nels Cline adding some embellishments and Glenn Kotche indulging in an extended drum solo between songs.

To Jeff's delight, it finally got dark enough.

To Jeff’s delight, it finally got dark enough.

Once “Magnetized” closed out the “opening set”, Jeff Tweedy greeted the crowd and the band launched into a roaring version of “Handshake Drugs”.  For the most part, the band kept the energy up during the main set, flying through uptempo numbers like “Dawned on Me”, “Heavy Metal Drummer”, and “I’m the Man That Loves You”.  Wilco did not just stick with the fun, bouncy songs though, as they played a varied set that covered all the assorted genres the band has flitted with over the years.  The group delighted the crowd with their moody, noisy freakouts in “Via Chicago” and “Art of Almost” as well as the introspective favorite “Jesus, Etc.”, but the audience truly came alive with the epic, extended guitar workouts of “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” and “Impossible Germany”.

For the encore, Wilco went retro

For the encore, Wilco went retro.

For the encore, the band eschewed amps and went old-school with a full acoustic lineup, with even keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen picking up an axe at one point.  The band began with a solemn rendition of “Misunderstood”, featuring an ending that stood in stark contrast with the way the long-time live favorite has been performed–instead of an ever-escalating repetition of the “nothing” part in “I’d like to thank you all for nothing at all”, the band gradually played softer, with members dropping out, finishing with Tweedy whispering the final notes in a powerful moment.  Bassist John Stirratt then got a turn at the mic as the band played “It’s Just That Simple” from their debut A.M., followed by an even earlier selection as they played “We’ve Been Had” by pre-Wilco group Uncle Tupelo.  Special guests (and Portland residents) Peter Buck of R.E.M., Janet Weiss of Sleater-Kinney, and Scott McCaughey joined in for the second of two Mermaid Avenue selections, livening up “California Stars” with an extra dose of familial feeling, before the band closed out with a relaxed take on “A Shot in the Arm”.

Wilco proved once again why they have been consistently one of the great live acts of the past two decades, and we wish we could have seen more of Speedy Ortiz’s opening set.  Unfortunately, Portland’s terrible Sunday traffic only allowed us to see a handful of songs from one of our favorite new bands, but we liked what we heard, even if most of the crowd seemed relatively indifferent.

Feats of Strength: Wilco

We were excited to wake up this morning to the news that Wilco had announced that they are releasing the box set retrospective Alpha Mike Foxtrot: Rare Tracks 1994-2014 on November 17th to mark the band’s twentieth anniversary.  Not only were we thrilled about the news itself, but we were glad to see that we had an even better reason to feature Wilco in our Feats of Strength series.  This time, we’re taking a closer look at one of their greatest songs, “At Least That’s What You Said”.

My first encounter with Wilco was during the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot era, when they became a cause célèbre after they were dropped by their record label for making a difficult album, a decision which backfired for Reprise when YHF became a huge critical hit and brought the band their widest audience yet.  However, after downloading a copy and listening to it a few times, I was unimpressed; that’s what happens when you read too many breathless music periodicals that tag the band with labels like “The American Radiohead”.  Expectations were simply too high, and I just ignored everything Wilco for the next few years.  A few years later, while I was back home from college for winter break, I was perusing the aisles of my local favorite record shop, when I was suddenly captivated by the strains of a blistering guitar solo coming out the store’s speakers.  I stopped picking through the albums for a moment and stood there, waiting for the song to finish, before walking over to the owner to ask who had just played this magnificent solo.  “Hey man, I just threw on Wilco’s new album.  Have you heard it yet?”  I was stunned, and immediately (1) reversed my opinion about the band and (2) went and found a copy of A Ghost Is Born and added it to my stack for the day.

The song is split into two halves: a tender piano ballad that gives a glimpse at a moment of potential reconciliation for partners in a painful/abusive relationship and an epic instrumental section let by an ever-building guitar solo.  The two parts are delineated by an electric guitar that cuts in right at the two-minute mark, which introduces the major thematic melody, followed by the band joining in on a series of repetitive quarter-note hits.  The guitar then switches back to the dominant melody, and the instrumental section begins in earnest, and the true fireworks of the guitar solo begins.  It’s at this point that the guitar begins to go off the rails in a bit of barely-contained chaos: at first, the guitar pauses every few measures to go back to repeat different variations of the melodic theme, but then it breaks free from this artificial constraint to let loose some aural pyrotechnics, before one final frantic return to the melody, before slowly dying away with a careful, pulsating tremolo bar dive, as the piano creeps back in.  Many listeners have noted the similarities to Neil Young, especially from the Crazy Horse era, and in many instances the guitar captures both a similar tone and style to Young.  One can hear echoes of the winding melodies of “Cowgirl In The Sand” and the rich reverb of the lead guitar of “Like A Hurricane” (note specifically the section at about 4:15 in the song), and the focus on microtones and other near-notes in the solo also is a callback to Young’s signature technique. The notes individually don’t all make sense, but when constructed as a whole, you certainly feel all the possible emotion that the guitarist is attempting to wring out.

What is perhaps most notable about this is the fact that the guitarist in question is Jeff Tweedy.  Even though he has been one of the few constants in Wilco throughout its history, Tweedy never really got the credit as a pure musician as he deserves.  In the early years, he was always compared to his musical partners (Jay Bennett in the early years of Wilco, Jay Farrar from the Uncle Tupelo years), and with the lineup that was hired to tour A Ghost Is Born, he had quite the set of ringers helping him out, including the amazing Nels Cline on guitar (just take a listen to “Impossible Germany” and you will immediately have a deep appreciation for the man’s amazing talent).  But it’s Jeff Tweedy who handled all the lead guitar in the studio for Ghost, and he’s never really received his proper due for his work throughout that album; his work on “At Least That’s What You Said” alone should place him on those periodic “Best Guitarists” lists that run every six months or so, but a lot of writers seem to forget who was behind the six string on that one.

The element that makes the solo work is not the technical mastery (though the incredible skill involved should definitely be acknowledged and admired), but Tweedy’s ability to imbue each note with an incredible amount of emotion, each pitched in a way so as to complement the story that he’s trying to tell.  He’s compared the instrumental half to an anxiety attack, and within the context of the song, the metaphor makes sense.  The slow build-up, the gradual unraveling, the repetition of the same phrase–they all mirror a spiraling out of control, though fortunately a calm is restored by the end of the song.  It’s an impeccably crafted solo in all aspects, and yes, it really rips live.