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Wilco - the Missing Link

Can Jeff Tweedy's populist post-rock alter the music industry?

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Does Jeff Tweedy really matter? The question haunts the music on Wilco's engaging new record, A Ghost Is Born, and it's a conundrum even some of his most loyal fans must address with each subsequent shape-shifting release. "What the hell is he up to now?" is a pretty common reaction to news of each new Wilco record. From alt-country demi-God (AM) to rock & roll revivalist (Being There), pop-mad production wizard (Summerteeth) to post-rock proselytizer (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot), Tweedy has confounded and confused as often as he has pleased and amazed throughout Wilco's first decade.

He's also created a body of work unmatched in American music over that time. Played out over five remarkably diverse full-lengths and two more distinct Mermaid Avenue collaborations with Billy Bragg, the constants in Tweedy's records have been change, honesty and critical success -- something he shares with some of rock's most respected icons.

That all makes for a good-looking resume, but Tweedy really matters because he just may be the missing link, the key to the puzzle, the last great hope for the record industry. Like all vital artists, Tweedy has an inimitable way of combining the past with the present just so to create a personal vision with broad appeal that still points toward the future. Which is fancy talk for saying that his music manages to sound familiar, original and timeless all at once. Take Ghost for instance. It's easy to imagine "Muzzle of Bees," "Hummingbird" or "Theologians" tucked alongside a Beatles, Neil Young or Nick Drake song on one of those eclectic 70s FM stations; "Handshake Drugs" or "I'm A Wheel" right after some Minutemen and Replacements on a left-of-the-dial 80s college station; "The Late Greats" and "Wishful Thinking" on a mid-90s roots station like WNCW; "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" or "At Least That's What You Said" along with Yo La Tengo or Gastr del Sol on one of those post-rock Internet stations.

Tweedy and Co. run those classic song-writing skills through a thoroughly modern sound blender often within one song -- opting for punk noise over lead guitar wankery, Krautrock minimalism instead of classic rock bombast, post-rock's incidental sounds rather than by-the-book accents. Tweedy's skills (with a big assist from producer Jim O'Rourke) at marrying classic songwriting and experimentation preened peacock-like across the musical stage on the critically acclaimed (and soon to go Gold) Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. And though the post-rock touches on A Ghost Is Born are organic (via guitars, keys, drums, bass) rather than digital this time, that particular mix is still fundamental. It's there in the majestic opener, "At Least That's What You Said," whose cascading piano chords and panicky guitar lines (think Painful-era Yo La Tengo) suggest an updated or anti-"Layla" epic; in the Neu!-marries-arena-rock-but-keeps-some-Tom-Verlaine-feedback-action-on-the-side 10-minute-plus marathon, "Spiders (Kidsmoke);" in the "I could swear that's a computer"-sounding organ drone that opens "Wishful Thinking," a ballad; in the narcotic swirl of guitar feedback that "Handshake Drugs" eventually nods off into; and in the 12 minutes of rudderless installation sound that mars the otherwise pretty "Less Than You Think" (the one serious misstep on Ghost - though even when it doesn't work you almost have to admire the chutzpah).

Chicago Tribune rock critic Greg Kot, author of a new and extremely thorough biography of the band, Wilco: Learning How to Die, says the new record could just as easily have been called Wilco Does Its Favorite Music.

"They're pretty wide-ranging on this one: "These are the kinds of music we've loved over the last two or three years, and we want to try and bring it all into this record,' " Kot says by phone from Chicago. "(Tweedy's) one of the few guys that every time I meet with him he's on to something new in terms of what he's listening to and what's inspiring him. That's how he is, he really gets lost in these worlds."

Of course, variety in and of itself isn't enough to save rock & roll, or they could just re-release the Clash's Sandinista and be done with the whole damn thing. But that's not all there is to Tweedy. Throughout his body of work there's a populist streak, and even among some non-believers a general fascination with this pudgy fucked-up-regular-guy-gone-all-arty that's made him something a lot of more talented, innovative and genre-bending musicians and bands aren't -- pretty damn popular. Remembering that their considered masterpiece -- Yankee Hotel Foxtrot -- wasn't just rejected by a major label, it got the band dropped, and that streamed copies of it were free for the taking for nearly a year before its official release, half-a-million units moved (retail talk) is some damn impressive work.

And though it's still not enough to get the major labels to put Britney money behind a Wilco release, it does give one the slightest reason to hope. Because ever since the labels began dumping their prestige acts (or "career artists," as Kot calls them) -- along with the music-first A&R connoisseurs that found and nurtured those artists -- it's been quarterly reports, units sold and market formulas that define "popular" music for the folks that have taken their place: Accountants and shareholders. So the only way the remaining major labels will remove their collective heads from their collective anuses and realize that there is still a viable market involving music that hasn't been test-marketed to death first is if it sells.

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