BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
Billy Bragg & Wilco
"Mermaid Avenue, Vol. 2"
The first round of this unique collaboration — British
folk-rocker Billy Bragg, American roots-rock band Wilco and
various friends interpretting previously unrecorded lyrics
by songwriting icon and Oklahoma native Woody Guthrie --
simply begged for a sequel. In fact, according to Bragg and
members of Wilco, the first Grammy-nominated "Mermaid Avenue"
album, released two years ago, was created with this
follow-up in mind.
"We knew we'd need another shake when we put the tracks
together for 'Mermaid Avenue,'" said Wilco's Jay Bennett,
guitarist and co-author of some of the music here. "We even
chose songs for the first record based on that. The first
album gave a broad view of Woody. It was intended to draw
people in. This album is less folky."
Less folky, indeed, but much more expansive, ambitious
and eclectic. "Volume 2" builds on the pleasant, accessible
(and historically important) introduction of the first
outing by stretching Woody's ideas through a constantly
changing landscape of musical styles, from ramblin' country
blues to '60s folk-rock to rollicking roadhouse protest
punk. The result, though, is still somehow cohesive.
Instead of flying apart in a whorl of splattered Jackson
Pollock mess, "Volume 2" holds together like a pointillized
Seurat painting — a million separate moments of color that
unite to create a single image or impression. Even
lyrically, they are disparate subjects, from flying saucers
and airplane rides through heaven to Stetson Kennedy and
What unites these songs is difficult to describe. It has
to do with attitude, spirit and what Tom Wolfe once called
the Unspoken Thing, but mostly it's the fact that the
musicians assembled here understand and transmit the
optimism and humility of the man in question.
It's important, too, that this record is such a tangled
collaboration. Were it simply Bragg's solo tribute to the
late Guthrie, the inevitable tunnel vision would exclude
the multiple opportunities available in these lyrics. A
solo effort also would focus the attention selfishly on one
performer — an approach not at all suitable to the legacy of
the ultimate Everyman. In addition to Bragg and Wilco
(sometimes together, sometimes backing each other up,
sometimes completely separate), Natalie Merchant — a guest
on the first "Mermaid" — turns in one song, the child-like "I
Was Born," and deliberately anachronistic young blues singer
Corey Harris takes the lead on "Against th' Law." The
constant mix scatters any professional egos that might
otherwise spoil such a project and therefore keeps us
listening to the songs themselves — their humor, their
poignancy, their simple and direct expressions of both
trivial and earth-shattering themes. It's about the music,
not the messengers.
This was the case on "Volume 1," but it's almost more
successful here largely because of the musical integrity of
Wilco's input. Bragg is still at top form, bouncing
cheerily through "My Flying Saucer" and spitting out "All You
Fascists" as if it were one of his own anti-fascist rants,
but Wilco's alternative innovative and derivative
fashioning of music for these lost lyrics makes this volume
of "Mermaid" a richer, more compelling experience. Bennett
and singer Jeff Tweedy fashion "Airline to Heaven," a
light-hearted daydream about soaring through heaven on the
wings of a prayer, into a stomping, kinetic flight, Tweedy
singing through his nose like Dylan the whole time. "Feed of
Man" is a socially urgent lyric, and Wilco's bluesy, British
Invasion stroll helps the words to grab the listener by the
collar, with Tweedy this time spitting out his lines in
about two notes as if he were the Animals' Eric Burdon.
"Secret of the Sea" rings like the Byrds, and "Blood of the
Lamb," a nakedly religious hymn, wobbles along on a woozy
Farfisa and Hammond organ like it's being delivered by a
These new sounds, these old shades — once again this is
the testament to Woody's immeasurable importance as a
songwriter. Strangers and stragglers still find redemption
in these old lyrics, and musicians continue to turn
half-century-old songs into brand-new, brilliant creatures.
In an era of quick-burn stars, it's almost difficult to
comprehend the impact a man could still make 33 years after
his death. But here's another example of Woody's continuing
imprint — long may it last.
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.