Tuesday, Apr 24, 2018
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CD reviews: Wilco's latest is a generous pleasure

There's a frayed, torn-around-the-edges feel to "A Ghost is Born" that is weary with emotional excess. It's the sound of a fractured relationship breaking apart and crumbling before someone crouches down to put it back together.

And it's brilliant, a remarkable step forward for Wilco after what was generally considered a master stroke, the critically acclaimed and commercially successful "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" released two years ago.

Jeff Tweedy is Wilco, and as a composer of pop music, rock and roll, and Americana he's a singular talent. Having shed every original member of the band but one, the group is firmly his creative vehicle, allowing him to craft complex, vivid songs without any brakes put on the process.

Like any great rock disc, "A Ghost is Born" reveals its generous pleasures on repeated listens, with something different jumping out each time, whether it's the punky energy of "I'm a Wheel," the Beatles-like "Hummingbird," or the stately pop elegance of "Theologians."

The centerpiece is the 10-minute "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" with its core of pulsing electronica, distorted guitar that slashes across the melodies, and the fierce full-band rock jam that erupts twice deep into the song. Tweedy's electric guitar playing is a powerful force, his style that of an articulate primitive, and he accents each tune with aggressive splashes of sound.

Throw in smart, sensitive lyrics, perfect production, and a superb balance of rockers and folk-based tracks, and "A Ghost is Born" is a legitimate classic that will stand up to years of listening.


This three-disc set, released as a companion to a recent PBS special, reminds that some songs from the '60s and '70s can still sound as good as they did when first released - like tracks from Hall & Oates, 10cc, Joe Cocker, Bill Withers, Dave Mason, and Boz Scaggs. Others, however, weren't that great to begin with, and the passage of time hasn't helped. The tracks are predominantly from the mainstream but there's still enough diversity that "Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree" is on the same CD as "Sara Smile."


From one of the film industry's superstar composers comes another outstanding original score. "King Arthur" is broad-shouldered, powerful, sweeping, and dynamic. It opens with the gentle voice of Moya Brennan on one song, then moves into even-paced, hard-charging orchestration with the kind of grit and texture found on some of Zimmer's other works, such as the "Gladiator" soundtrack. Like "Gladiator," it's strong, battle-weary music without being dark or dreary.


Contemporary blues/folk singer-guitarist Bibb has gathered together a Who's Who of blues and folk artists for an interesting mix of the two genres. Guest performances on this generous 15-song album include Taj Mahal, Charlie Musselwhite, and Odetta, while Bibb's rough-edged vocals hold it all together with workmanlike reliability. There are a couple of fine numbers, most notably "Tain't Such A Much" with Odetta and "Six O'Clock Blues" with Musselwhite. But what's missing is a surefire hit or song that sends listeners to the "repeat" button.


Hiromi, the Japanese-Bostonian pianist/composer, returns with a straight-ahead trio concept that brings together Tony Grey (bass) and Martin Valihora (drums) with guest bass player Anthony Jackson. And if you have to classify this release, it's jazz and it's classical - and it's inventive and refreshing. Hiromi, however, is definitely not bound by tradition. Perhaps the most exciting piece is "Keytalk," which pulsates with a funky beat driven by feeding the keyboard through a guitar talk box to create vocal shadings highlighted by Middle Eastern and Asian riffs.


Join Rod Lockwood for Chitchat about music this Tuesday at noon at www.toledoblade.com/chitchat.

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