(Since I started this a mostly as music blog – though I do occasionally write on other subjects – I thought it might be fun to include a series of posts devoted to albums that I love but have kind of disappeared under the radar for some reason or another.)
Billy Bragg & Wilco – Mermaid Avenue
The story goes that before his death, Woody Guthrie left a bunch of unpublished lyrics offering them to Dylan. Dylan seems to confirm this in his memoir Chronicles Vol 1 (and just where the hell is Volume 2, Bob?). I say “seems to” because it’s always hard to figure out the truth with Dylan. In the memoir, Dylan shows up at Guthrie’s house only to be told off by the babysitter.
As much as I love Bob Dylan, I’m hesitant to think of the actual result. For the first few years of his career, Dylan was intent on copying Guthrie while creating his own sound, so it would have been superfluous for him to record an entire album of Guthrie originals.
Which brings us to Mermaid Avenue. Decades later, Guthrie’s daughter offers some of the unfinished songs to Billy Bragg, who then recruits Wilco to also contribute to the album. Really, you couldn’t ask for a better combination of musicians to create an album like this. Bragg whose leftist politics picks up Guthrie’s revolutionary spirit, and Wilco one of the few American bands in the past decade who constantly pushed the limits of what rock can achieve in the 21st century.
I’ve always been attached to this album for a number of reasons. Unlike a lot of other modern folk leaning records, the album manages to sound contemporary and timeless at the same time. It also contains perhaps three of the best opening tracks on record (Walt Whitman’s Niece, California Stars, Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key). Walt Whitman’s Niece lyrically is really an absurd song, yet with its call and response would in a perfect world, be the ultimate bar anthem. California Stars has kind of become the anthem from the album, with both Bragg and Wilco still performing in their set-lists.
I suppose what really makes this album a success is that it actually works. Usually side projects like these fall flat on their faces. The musicians try to sound too much like their heroes. Or take the extreme route and create something that is unlistenable, and does not capture the spirit of the original musician. But trying to modernize yet still have Guthrie’s folk spirit is a testament to both Wilco and Bragg. Hoodoo Voodoo’s carnival sound perfectly fits the fun and childish lyrics. She Came Along to Me’s defiant attitude is expressed in the way Bragg sings “and maybe we’ll have all the fascists out of the way by then.” It doesn’t seem like a lament but rather hopeful.
The second volume of Mermaid Avenue (which I like) is not nearly as good. Perhaps this kind of combination could only occur once. And as much as I like Billy Bragg, Wilco and Woody Guthrie, I think it’s the best thing to come from all three.