Tuesday, December 2, 2014

CD Odyssey Disc 684: Billy Bragg and Wilco

I’m not feeling 100 per cent. I won’t say I’m sick, but I’m light on energy reserves. My plan at this point is to ignore it until it goes away. You’d be surprised how often this works.

Disc 684 is…. Mermaid Avenue
Artist: Billy Bragg and Wilco

Year of Release: 1998

What’s up with the Cover?  I am going to guess this is a picture of Woody Guthrie’s Coney Island home on Mermaid Avenue, since that’s what the album is named after, and would therefore make for a fitting cover. Unless it is one of those ironic hipster moments, where the picture doesn’t mean anything. I just can’t see Billy Bragg and Wilco doing that to Woody, though.

How I Came To Know It: I once again don’t remember. I think someone sent me the song “Way Over Yonder In a Minor Key” and that caused me to fall down the Youtube hole and into the embrace of “Mermaid Avenue.”

How It Stacks Up:  I have four Wilco albums and six Billy Bragg albums, but only two albums featuring both of them; this one and “Mermaid Avenue Vol. II” (reviewed back at Disc 537). Of the two, Volume 1 (this one) is best.

Rating: 4 stars

One day Woody Guthrie’s daughter Nora took a bunch of her father’s unrecorded lyrics to Billy Bragg and Wilco and asked them “can you do something with these?” “Hell, yes!” they presumably replied, and made this record.

Guthrie didn’t write his music down, just the words, so Wilco and Bragg were able to bring their own prodigious talents to the equation. As a result, “Mermaid Avenue” is thrice blessed.

I can’t think of a better fit for this project than Billy Bragg, whose own brand of socially conscious protest rock makes him a natural inheritor of Guthrie’s work. Guthrie’s down-home folksy charm rings through on the songs Bragg takes lead on.

Unsurprisingly, “Mermaid Avenue” has some socialist gems that Bragg gives voice to, including “Christ for President” and the union anthem “I Guess I Planted.” These are good tracks, but Bragg’s got nothing to prove on this front, and I preferred him taking on Guthrie’s whimsical side. Drunken adventures abound on “Walt Whitman’s Niece” and “Ingrid Bergman” has Guthrie reminding latter-day audiences just what a sexual icon she was in the day. The song has Guthrie hoping for a few minutes alone with Ingrid on Mount Stromboli, convinced her beauty would cause the mountain to erupt.

The best of all is the song that got me into this album, “Way Over Yonder In a Minor Key.” This is a song that gives you a glimpse into misadventure in the forties (Guthrie wrote the lyrics in 1946). It also reminds us that even the ugly boy gets the pretty girl if he can sing and write songs – as long as he’s willing to brave her mom’s willow switch later. Bragg’s treatment is the perfect mix of playful and pastoral.

Jeff Tweedy and Wilco bring a whole other dimension to the music. This is early in Wilco’s career, and they are still firmly in their folksy/blue-eyed soul phase. While very unlike Bragg’s approach, it is the perfect counterbalance. Where Bragg’s songs are deep and boisterous, Wilco’s are bright and jangly. Standouts include the laid back “California Stars” and the mournful “At My Window Sad and Lonely.”

Although mostly just doing backup vocals, it was also nice to hear Natalie Merchant get in on the action, taking lead vocals on the strongly traditional “Birds and Ships.”

This record is a fitting legacy for Woody Guthrie and the great folk artists he’s inspired for decades since he wrote these songs. There is no better example on “Mermaid Avenue” than the rolling folk song “The Unwelcome Guest” which is about an outlaw that steals from the rich and gives to the poor. The song is typical fare for Bragg and Guthrie, which puts message above character in the end by converting the song’s title character into a movement:

“Yes, they’ll catch me napping one day and they’ll kill me
And then I’ll be gone but that won’t be my end
For my guns and my saddle will always be filled
By unwelcome travelers and other brave men.”

The song is the last on the record, which lets it linger in your ears and echo through the ages. It shows that both Bragg and Wilco understand that they are standing on the shoulders of a folk music giant, even as they pull him back into the consciousness of a whole new generation.

I saw Bragg in concert very recently, and he was still singing songs off of “Mermaid Avenue” and still talking about the experience of recording it. It was clear that he was deeply touched by the opportunity. “Mermaid Avenue” shows that both he and Wilco made the best of it.

Best tracks: California Stars, Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key, Birds and Ships, At My Window Sad and Lonely, Ingrid Bergman, The Unwelcome Guest

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