A Ghost is Born

When your favorite band starts going through members like so many hankies, as a fan you start to worry. But, like all good bands, Wilco has never left its fans (at least not this fan) disappointed.

Their previous outing, the masterpiece Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, was a monumental album, and brought the band long-overdue acclaim and attention. The band’s fight for creative control of the album was inspiring in itself.

A Ghost is Born is more of the same: stark, lovely and strangely infectious. Frontman Jeff Tweedy continues to transcend himself musically; his refusal to stagnate has continually produced remarkable music. Lovely little piano ballads and pop-infused melodies move through the record. Then, in the tradition of Neil Young, distorted guitar solos crack the melodies wide open, flashing and thundering off the beat like a summer storm.

The surreal, sublime and joyfully ordinary mix in proportions of rare beauty on the album. “Hummingbird,” one of its real gems, reveals this scrap of poetry: …In the deep chrome canyons of the latticed Manhattans… “Theologians” asserts that Theologians don’t know nothin’ about my soul. And soul—oddly, for a ghost—is what this album’s got. (David Nolt)

The Magnetic Fields

Stephen Merritt is either an uncommonly conceptual songwriter, an astoundingly absorbent one, or simply so prolific that he can afford the luxury of selecting a few songs at a time from an enormous catalogue of works-in-progress to arrange around a fairly simple concept with each new Magnetic Fields release. The three-CD 1999 boxed set, 69 Love Songs, was exactly that: 69 love songs, mostly great, often brilliant, once in awhile wretched. Even the bad ones, though, had a peculiar logic to them, as though Merritt was actually trying to intentionally parody cliché-ridden genres as lamely as possible.

Genre is a big thing with Magnetic Fields. Merritt’s batcave baritone seldom emanates what you’d call warmth, but he’s fluent in so many grand traditions of songwriting (not the least of which is the show tune) that he quickly finds his conversational footing in the most death-defying feats of copycat hubris—like the operetta. As a sort of audio Cliffs Notes for the uninitiated, Merritt, in his most esoteric endeavors, usually finds a way to bring the lyrics around to the style; hence “In an Operetta.”

The theme on i is that all the songs start with “i.” Merritt’s acerbic wit makes it through the thematic filter intact, but on the whole the music takes fewer risks than on 69 Love Songs, with commensurately lesser rewards. Still one of the better records you’ll hear this year. (Andy Smetanka)

Modest Mouse
Good News for People Who Love Bad News
Sony Music Records

Another great album title from a band with consistently great album titles. Good News is Modest Mouse’s most innovative album to date, and as a single cohesive collection of songs, it is also their best. From the beginning, it’s evident in the music that the band has matured, melding graceful harmonies with their trademark grit, eeriness, and youthful, raucous energy.

Vocalist Isaac Brock writes here with remarkable poignancy and timely restraint. Tension is everywhere, and each new abstraction makes you wonder even as it moves and baits you along.

It begins with “World at Large,” a slow, dreamy guitar- and harmony-driven tune. Then Brock utters something of fatalistic brilliance: “Ice age, heat wave, can’t complain. If the world’s at large why should I remain?”

“Float On” is a classic, and essentially sums up everything that’s great about Good News: a song that rolls along, pretty and ugly the whole way through. There are heavy rockers here, but also a lot of melodious numbers. A banjo even shows up on two tracks, accompanying an electric guitar with surprising confidence.

There are dull moments on the album, too, but they are outshined by the rest of the masterfully layered and passionate music here. Modest Mouse lays it all out on Good News, and it pays off. (David Nolt)

Bad Religion
The Empire Strikes First

How do they do it? Why do they do it? Over the course of a career now creeping past 20 years, Bad Religion has released almost as many albums of essentially soundalike pop-punk with Greg Graffin’s trademark hyperliterate polemics standing in as vocals. They’ve strayed only rarely, and never for very long, from what amounts to a winning formula. Past producers have called upon the band to write lyrics of a slightly lesser preaching-to-the-choir nature, but after an album’s worth of indulging this constructive criticism, body memory bends the band right back to true. If nothing else, you have to admire their determination. And their consistency.

Now, to be fair, a lot of why Bad Religion has come to sound so reassuringly dull has to do with their four-chords-and-a-poli-sci-textbook formula, now declassified, being co-opted by nearly every pop-punk band out there, but rarely with more than half the intelligence that distinguishes your average Bad Religion song. It doesn’t help that the band’s vanity label, Epitaph, has snapped up so many of the idolaters, either. As with past Bad Religion albums, The Empire Strikes First comes complete with an off-the-rack philosophical framework ready to be worn by suggestible young listeners who have never been exposed to these original gangstas of melodic political pop. For the rest of us, it’s just getting old and redundant. (Andy Smetanka)

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