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Thursday, July 8, 2004 05:04 am

Haunted by high expectations, Wilco produces a minor Ghost

Wilco A Ghost Is Born (Nonesuch)

A Ghost Is Born

Listen closely to A Ghost Is Born, and you'll discern a faint whooshing noise, the teensiest hiss of concentrated air, silence made sibilant. No, it's not the sound of 16,000 rock critics preparing to service their lord and master, Jeff Tweedy. It's not some clever studio gimmick courtesy of the record's producer, Sonic Youth sideman and freelance fancy-pants Jim O'Rourke. It's the sound of a very good band deflating under the weight of its almost-but-not-quite greatness. The torrent of hype occasioned by Wilco's last record, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and its companion documentary, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, gushes along anyway: There's an obligingly reverent new biography (Greg Kot's Learning How to Die); Tweedy's unfortunate debut as a published poet (no lie -- it's called Adult Head, and you can find it on Amazon); and fawning features in every mainstream rag you can think of, from the New York Times to Rolling Stone. A backlash seems inevitable. What's an Important American Band to do?

For Tweedy, the Karl Rove of indie rock, the answer is to recruit new collaborators -- scruffy, dues-paying substars flush with underground steez. The Dockers-bedecked doofuses who rocked out to A.M. don't know who Glenn Kotche or Nels Cline is, but the dozen-or-so people who claim to be into Deerhoof might. (Haven't heard of Deerhoof? That, poor plebe, is the point.) Aside from the cranky contrarians at Pitchfork, who gave Ghost a lukewarm 6.6 rating, and Robert Christgau, who bitch-slapped it with a B- and deemed it "Dud of the Month" in the Village Voice, the cred campaign seems like a smashing success.

Of course, it didn't hurt when Tweedy came out as a recovering addict. Music hacks need their canonical dopers: Bob Dylan, Brian Jones, Brian Wilson, Roky Erickson, Alex Chilton, Sly Stone, Lou Reed, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison (who also made the mistake of publishing his dismal verse) -- for the love of Elvis, who wasn't a hophead? Tweedy's well-publicized stint in rehab (announced two months before the album's release date) corresponds nicely to the tortured-genius template.

But you can't hate a band just because its frontman knows his market. Ghost is far from awful -- in fact, it's often painfully lovely -- and, if you can get past the occasional proggish pretense, the interminable stretches of pure noise, and some embarrassing lyrical missteps, you'll find much to admire. There's "Hummingbird," one of the best songs Tweedy has ever written, a Summerteeth throwback studded with stately viola and delicate dulcimer. "Handshake Drugs" lures a cheerful vocal melody into a dark instrumental tangle and leaves it caught there, bright and forsaken. The furious, robotic "I'm a Wheel" brings to mind Neu! covering the Replacements, and "Company in My Back," with its gobbledygook phrases and art-rock ambitions, is a druggy delight, all cellophane shine and giddy grace.

A study in Krautrock drone, modest guitar heroics (think Neil Young, circa On the Beach), and pretty piano, Ghost seems minor by design, minor in a good way. Tweedy's fragile sigh of a tenor gives way to tentative, meandering leads and ambient interludes; sprightly anthems implode into sonic migraines; everything falls apart. As a longtime proponent of noble obscurity, the indie-rock ethos that inverts success and failure, Tweedy no doubt feels obliged to dismantle the myth of Wilco as the Great American Rock Band, the myth that he can't seem to accept even though he helped construct it. The closing track, "Late Greats.' seems like a point-blank concession that he ain't all that: "The best songs will never get sung/The best life never leaves your lungs/So good you won't ever know/You'll never hear it on the radio." The catchiest song on the album, it's a parting air-kiss to those poor pop saps who got it all so terribly wrong.

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