From Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.” to Skee-Lo’s “I Wish,” the best songs about Los Angeles capture a well-known dichotomy: The same place that harbors hope, a teeming populace, and the promise of fame is also a bastion of failure, loneliness, and illusion. That the ever-prescient Woody Guthrie would cotton to those vibes even in Hollywood’s infancy shouldn’t come as a shock; what’s surprising is that until New Multitudes, the troubadour’s time spent in the city has gone relatively undocumented. Enter alt-folk dream team Jay Farrar (Son Volt), Will Johnson (Centro-Matic), Anders Parker (Varnaline), and Yim Yames (My Morning Jacket), who’ve scoured Guthrie’s notebooks, sketch pads, and even the occasional napkin for unused lyrics about the city, then put these otherwise lost songs to their own score.
It’s the Mermaid Avenue treatment, but with a topical focus that makes the album feel like a transmission from the man himself. The Dust Bowl-bred politics and protest are absent here, replaced by a whole lot of introspection as Guthrie either consoles himself against the limitations of life and love—he was facing flagging health and a third divorce—or exudes an optimism that seems both romantic and blithe. On “No Fear,” Johnson leads a raw four-man campfire jam, joyously singing, “I’m here on my deathbed, taking my last breath / Got no fears in life, got no fears of death.” But one song later, on the “Wimoweh”-evoking “Changing World,” Yames coos, “I’m afraid to live here, friend, I’m afraid to die.”
This crew walks a similar musical divide, trading in a mix of upbeat ramble (“Fly High”), electric blues (“Angel’s Blues”), and light psychedelia (“My Revolutionary Mind”), with, of course, a seared layer of slowcore slag and bearded bag-man whisper over everything. A jug jam morphs into a mournful dirge. Acoustic strum is run off by distorted bluster. Placid mantras emerge from strings that buzz like a phalanx of circular saws. The effect is both panoramic and cloistered, an aptly manic-depressive tribute not only to the band’s source material and Guthrie’s lasting relevance, but to the lonesome crowded West that so many have worked to document since.