Thursday, August 1, 2013

CD Odyssey Disc 537: Billy Bragg and Wilco

Sometimes the random element to what I review can be a bit disappointing.  For example, to introduce you to this next album – a collaboration of two great artists inspired by a third - it would have been easier to have done their first album together, rather than Volume II.

But hey, that’s the way the random cookie crumbles.  So here’s Volume II – it’s still good.

Disc 537 is…. Mermaid Avenue Vol. II

Artist: Billy Bragg and Wilco

Year of Release: 2000

What’s up with the Cover?  I’m guessing the background of this shot is Mermaid Avenue, around the time of Woody Guthrie, however who cares about that when you have a cute kitty in the foreground!  In recent years I’ve come to love the tuxedo cat, but there’s a lot to be said for the tabby. 

How I Came To Know It:  I had found out about the amazing first “Mermaid Avenue” album just a few years ago, and then learned there was a sequel.  Without delay I sought it out and added it to my collection.  If one album of this music was good, I reasoned, then two must be better.  

How It Stacks Up:  Turns out I was right, and “Mermaid Avenue Vol. II” is a strong record as well, but overall the first “Mermaid Avenue” is stronger, so I have to rank this one second.

Rating:  3 stars but almost 4

On his 1997 song “Christmas in Washington” Steve Earle pines:

“Come back Woody Guthrie
Come back to us now
Tear your eyes from paradise
And rise again somehow.”

A year later, Steve’s wish would symbolically come true, when Guthrie’s daughter Nora met up with Billy Bragg and Wilco and gave them a myriad of song lyrics her father had penned but never recorded.  If there had ever been music to go with these lyrics, they were lost to the mists of time, but with the help of Bragg and Wilco, they were brought to life and with them, Guthrie rose again somehow.

The “Mermaid Avenue” project was such a success (artistically at least) that two years later Bragg and Wilco did another whole second album of them.  That album, not terribly inventively, is called “Mermaid Avenue, Vol. II” again after the street in Coney Island, Brooklyn that Guthrie lived on.  Whatever its title, it is a worthy successor to a contemporary folk classic.

As with the first record, Billy Bragg and Jeff Tweedy of Wilco alternate taking lead vocals and they both bring something beautiful to Guthrie’s original thoughts.  Bragg’s protest folk styles are a more natural fit for Guthrie’s lyrics, but Jeff Tweedy frontman and the rest of Wilco are equally good.  In fact, the indie rock style of Wilco gives a nice counterbalance to Bragg’s more traditional approach.  The ghost of Guthrie is everpresent, and the three artistic voices form a nice triangle, each corner equally propping up the record’s feel.

Given Earle’s prayer for the return of Guthrie, the opening track, “Airline to Heaven” is a fitting start, as Guthrie muses about one day going to heaven.  The words were penned in 1939, but like every song on the record it is as fresh and relevant today as any song.

I enjoyed hearing, “My Flying Saucer” as the next track, a true 1950s whimsical approach to the topic at a time when flying saucers were just becoming a fad.  I’ve always wanted to do a ‘flying saucer’ playlist which would feature the song, plus Blue Rodeo’s “Cynthia”, Blue Oyster Cult’s “Sole Survivor” the Carpenters’ “Calling Occupants” and Tool’s “Rosetta Stoned”  I’m sure I could find a few more once I put my mind to it.  But I digress…

Back to “Mermaid Avenue (Vol. II).”  Not surprisingly some of the most resonant songs are those that speak to social justice issues, something that all parties to the music understand.  “Hot Rod Hotel” is the song about a porter/night clerk at a hotel and all the menial tasks he is forced to perform to put food on the table, until one day he rebels when asked to clean up a particularly horrible room.  The song sounds like it will end sad and defeated, but it actually is a working class triumph:

“The lammy tried to make me clean up that crappy mess
Or else he’d fire me off my job and let me starve to death
I laid aside my polish rag and downed my dusting pan
And I’ve not seen the old Hot Rod nor that old town since then.”

This song is a timely reminder that no matter where we find ourselves on the corporate ladder, we can always choose dignity and honour if faced with acquiescing to the unreasonable.

Not all the songs are as compelling as this, unfortunately.  “I Was Born” sounds like a transcription of a toddler trying to remember when she was born, and the guest vocals of Natalie Merchant plays that up to the further detriment of the song.  “Blood of the Lamb” has a pretty gospel feel to it, but it is just a bit too preachy for my tastes (note:  good gospel never feels actually preachy).  Finally, “Joe Di Maggio Done It Again” would be a fun song if you were a baseball fan, but I am not.

These misses are more about my personal preferences, however, rather than being inherently bad songs, and even so they are the exceptions that prove the rule.

The rule here makes a heartfelt record that misses very few beats.  There is political commentary aplenty, including calling out fascists, and supporting a write-in third party candidate due to disgust with all the people approved on the ballot.

The album also features gentle love songs like “Remember the Mountain Bed” rich with verses dripping with sexy autumnal glory:

“Do you still sing of the mountain bed we made of limbs and leaves
Do you still sigh there near the sky where the holly berry bleeds
You laughed as I covered you over with leaves, face, breast, hips and thighs
You smiled when I said the leaves were just the color of your eyes.”

Whew!  Is it getting hot in here?
Er…anyway, many of the themes on “Mermaid Avenue Vol. II” are twenty or thirty years before their time, and Bragg and Wilco ensure they fit for the modern ear without ever losing the protest folk charm of Guthrie himself.  This album is a worthy successor to a project that was inspired by Guthrie's own 'Airline to Heaven', and a little honest hope from some talented folks still down here waiting in this earthly terminal for their turn to be remembered.

Best tracks:  Airline to Heaven, Hot Rod Hotel, Stetson Kennedy, Remember the Mountain Bed, All You Fascists, Black Wind Blowing, Someday Some Morning Sometime

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