Wilco :: A Ghost Is Born, Re-Imagined

I got some very thoughtful responses to last week’s post on The Replacements - Tim Re-Imagined, so I though I’d dig out another album re-imagining I posted last year on Wilco’s A Ghost Is Born, touch it up a bit, and see what people thought of it now that there are actually people reading this blog.

In 2004 Wilco released A Ghost Is Born, the long awaited follow-up to their universally acclaimed Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The album came at the peek of public interest in Wilco, as everyone was anxious to see what the band would produce after what many considered one of the finest albums of the young decade. To most, it didn’t disappoint. Yet again Wilco seemingly had a world of positive critical feedback in its pocket, and the album debuted high on the charts, breaking into the top ten in its first week. The album garnered almost universal applause, even scoring two Grammys along the way. By all accounts it was a huge hit in the indie-rock world, with Wilco ending the year headlining a show with Sleater-Kinney and The Flaming Lips at Madison Square Garden.

It’s hard to complain about an album that yielded such a positive response. When it first came out I remember thinking immediately that it wasn‘t as great as YHF, but maybe I‘d feel differently if I gave it time. But not only did those initial feelings never change, eventually I begin to feel that while I loved most of the songs, I didn‘t really enjoy listening to the album. The tired, dry versions of many of the songs didn't compel repeated listens, and eventually I just stopped trying altogether.

Recorded during a tumultuous time in the life of lead singer/songwriter Jeff Tweedy, the band, and especially Tweedy, sound exhausted on many of the key songs. Several of the songs were performed live for a long time before they were recorded and wound up in completely different versions than fans anticipated on the album. Deconstructing the songs on YHF was a brilliant move, as the songs were rebuilt into shapes that were more pleasing than their demo form. The same thing that worked so well on that album seemed to suck the life out of the Ghost songs. People described how “warm” the record sounded, most likely due to the spontaneous recording techniques and the minimal overdubs. Listening now I can’t help but feel the record sounds just the opposite. It has a coldness to it, a distance, that sounds like it was recorded by expert musicians who were somewhat detached from what was going on around them.

This was, and is, especially frustrating for one simple reason: the songs themselves on A Ghost Is Born are every bit as great as those on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Tweedy may have been suffering at the time, but he channeled all his pain into the lyrics to brilliant effect. Lyrically the album raises the already high standard he set on YHF and 1999’s Summerteeth. These songs deserved the spirited musical accompaniment that those from YHF got, and only a few times did that happen.

The different versions of the songs that appear below are of course not the exact versions I would want on a studio album. My idea is that there would be studio versions that use these arrangements/impassioned performances to a better result. So, again with a tip of the cap to the “Playing God” column over at Stylus, I present “A Ghost Is Born - Re-Imagined”. Taking live tracks and alternate songs from the time period of the recording, I’m presenting to you how I wish the album would have been released. Hope you enjoy:

1. “At Least That’s What You Said” - The album version is safe in large part for the breath-taking guitar solos that Tweedy unleashes during the second half of the song. This performance is head and shoulders above everything else that follows as far as a passion goes, and proved to the world that Tweedy was a highly underestimated guitarist for far too long.

2. “Hell Is Chrome”

3. MP3 - Spiders (Kidsmoke) (LIVE) - It seemed everyone had an opinion about the drastic reincarnation of this song from the live performances to the studio one. At some point during recording “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” was transformed from what sounded like it could be a modern-rock radio hit to a huge, Krautrock-influenced monster (check out “Hallogallo“ by Neu! to see what the band was listening to at the time). The result was perhaps the most divisive part of the album. There is no doubt that the album version is tremendous, but early live versions had all the same aspects that make the album version great, and contained more melody and, well, fun. This version is from the summer of 2003.

4. MP3 - Muzzle Of Bees (LIVE) - I feel this song suffered the most between early live performances to studio, as it went from a spry, bouncy pop-rock song to a long, slow, droney one. The studio version does build up to a memorable finish, but you have to sit through the first 4 minutes to get there. Enjoy it here in its original form, again from the summer of 2003.

5. “Handshake Drugs” - live version from Kicking Television. I’m cheating here technically, because this version has Nels Cline playing guitar, and he wasn’t officially in the band until after AGIB was released. Whatever. The album version lacks the spark this song had live before the album and then again after - it‘s now my favorite moment of the live Wilco experience.

6. “Wishful Thinking”

7. “Company In My Back” - This is one of the very few studio versions that improves the live versions from before release.

8. “Kicking Television” - from the live album. This is not really here for any other reason than the original album is 12 songs, so this one ought to be too. I just like it better than “I’m A Wheel”, and the studio version of this song that’s out there lacks the ferocity of this live take.

9. “Theologians”

10. MP3 - Less Than You Think (LIVE) - another live version, again from the summer of 2003. Forget what I wrote about “Spiders”, this song was the most divisive on the album, what with 12 minutes of effin’ drone. The song started out as a really beautiful little folk song with nice harmonies. Seriously, how the band allowed the album version to see the light of day is beyond me.

11. “The Late Greats” - the album version is more concise than the live versions that appeared before the album came out, making it a shorter, livelier song.

12. MP3 - Not For The Season (LIVE) - a live version from 10/22/02. Again, I’m cheating here because this song dates back to the YHF sessions, and appeared on Loose Fur’s debut album (with a silly name). But this is one of my very favorite Tweedy songs, and although there are plenty of versions available through bootlegs, Loose Fur, and the Sunken Treasure DVD, Wilco never released a definitive studio version of their own. It was played at many shows between YHF and AGIB, so I don’t feel guilty including it, as it would have made a tremendous album closer.

Sorry to “Hummingbird”. I know it’s a fan favorite, and everyone goes ape-shit at the shows because a guitar-less Tweedy shows off his dance skills - I like the song, especially the lyrics, just not as much as what’s here. Besides, it would make a killer b-side. So, what do you think? Could studio versions of these songs that capture their energy better this album? Or am I barking up the wrong tree?

By the way - Wilco just finished up a 5 night run at Chicago’s Riviera Theatre during which they played every song from their 6 proper studio albums at least once. Hell, even “It’s Just That Simple” got some play. Captain’s Dead has night 4 and I Am Fuel You Are Friends has night 5.

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