Wilco’s ‘Ghost’ finds band unhaunted by its past

Back-to-back masterpieces aren't exactly commonplace in any art form. So when Wilco hit the studio to record its follow-up to 2002's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the eclectic band's most impressive album in an already strong catalogue, the band certainly had an unenviable task on its hands.

However, Jeff Tweedy, the Chicago-based band's driving force and principle songwriter, had other ideas. A Ghost Is Born, a follow-up to Yankee only in the sense that it features a later release date, finds Tweedy and the band traversing yet another unmapped route of sonic exploration – something Wilco has done throughout its existence.

This trip, though, may be the biggest jump the band has made in its history. Unfairly pigeonholed as a mere alt.country outfit thanks to Tweedy's prior involvement in Uncle Tupelo, an early influence in the genre, the impossible-to-label Wilco doesn't show many traces of its distant past on Ghost.

Instead, the band kicks off the album with "At Least That's What You Said," a tune that begins with Tweedy's haunting whisper — "When I sat down on the bed next to you/You started to cry" — before escalating into a frenzied explosion of heavily distorted guitar riffs of near-apocolypic proportions. "Hell Is Chrome" showcases a similar, though less chaotic approach — experimental guitar licks, whispered lyrics — and Wilco sounds like it's getting comfortable.

But there's simply no guessing which direction Tweedy will steer his band. "Spiders (Kidsmoke)," a 10-minute sprawl of experimentalism, comes next and actually stands up to repeat listening thanks to the glue provided by its memorable groove.

However, some of the experimentation gets to be a bit much. On the 12-minute "Less Than You Think," the final eight minutes are spent listening to an irritating electronic hum that's difficult to get through even once.

As the album moves on, and it seems like Wilco might have forgotten to include anything resembling a catchy tune, listeners are treated to the Beatle-esque pop of "Hummingbird" and the melodic "Handshake Drugs," a track that soars thanks to Tweedy's poetic lyrics — "The saxophone started blowing me down/I was buried in sound/The taxi cab were driving me around/To the handshake drugs I bought downtown."

Other highlights include the edgy Ramones-inspired rocker "I'm A Wheel," "Theologians" and the catchiest tune on the album, closer "The Late Greats."

Ghost isn't better than Yankee, and it isn't a masterpiece. But the members of Wilco, working in the shadows of an album that will forever define them as a band, managed to turn out another pretty good one.

Grade: AB