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Billy Bragg & Wilco: Mermaid Avenue

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Stricken with disease, folk giant Woody Guthrie, one of the most important figures in American music and the embodiment of the American road, was unable to perform or tour for much of his later life. Instead, he spent his premature twilight years composing song after song in his New York home on Mermaid Avenue, and most of them were never set to music. At the request of Guthrie's estate, Billy Bragg—an artist concerned with preserving the folk tradition if ever there was one—took on the job of choosing from about a thousand Guthrie lyrics and setting a handful to music. For the task, he brought in Wilco, a like-minded group with a better grasp of traditional American music. The results, collected on Mermaid Avenue, are striking. Alternating between the vocals of Bragg and Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy (and, on one track, Natalie Merchant), Mermaid Avenue's selection nicely elaborates on the given image of Guthrie while expanding it in some interesting directions. "Walt Whitman's Niece" opens the album in raucous, bawdy fashion before allowing the lovely, acoustic "California Stars" to provide a counterpoint. It's an appropriate beginning for a record that contains everything from the rocking, nonsensical children's song "Hoodoo Voodoo" to the lovely, proto-feminist love song "She Came Along To Me," to the plaintive "Another Man's Done Gone." The songs occasionally provide glimpses at previously unseen sides of Guthrie, such as "Ingrid Bergman," a love song to the then-controversial actress. Both Bragg and Wilco sound relaxed and comfortable with the music, which captures Guthrie's spirit without imitating him stylistically. On a collection that doesn't lack highlights, "Christ For President" and "Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key" are particularly notable, the former as an expression of Guthrie's forceful, populist interpretation of Christianity, and the latter simply for being stunningly beautiful. Mermaid Avenue is, put simply, a triumph: It's essential listening for admirers of Guthrie, Wilco, and Bragg—and, for that matter, anyone else.