Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
We may earn a commission from links on this page

Billy Bragg & Wilco: Mermaid Avenue Vol. II

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

If the whole of American music were reduced to a few key figures, one would surely be Woody Guthrie. The composer of thousands of songs and singer of many more, Guthrie gave back to the American folk tradition as much as he took from it, in the process becoming one of its most recognizable symbols. A vagabond activist who sang about anything that occurred to him, but especially about injustices directed at the disempowered, Guthrie spent the last two decades of his life confined to his home in New York City, afflicted with Huntington's Chorea and unable to perform. But he kept composing, leaving more than 1,000 lyrics without music. From these, at daughter Nora Guthrie's request, Billy Bragg and Wilco crafted the surprise 1998 hit Mermaid Avenue. A terrific achievement in many respects, it both brought to light Guthrie's final work and did a remarkable job dressing Guthrie up in contemporary clothes. Rather than attempting to imitate him, Wilco and Bragg crafted around his lyrics songs in their own styles, creating a remarkably direct album that comfortably houses ballads, raucous up-tempo tracks, and political anthems. Mermaid Avenue Vol. II provides more of the same in the best possible sense. Having already made their point, Bragg and Wilco loosen up a bit with this second installment, at least part of which is left over from the original sessions. As before, the Bragg-dominated tracks bridge the Guthrie we know to the one we don't. "Stetson Kennedy," "All You Fascists," and "Hot Rod Hotel," the last a darkly comic account of a truly terrible job, provide political commentary, while "My Flying Saucer" aspires to nothing but inspired nonsense. Wilco's contributions focus on Guthrie's more personal side, spinning pop out of folk. "Secret Of The Sea," which could easily have been produced by Traveling Wilburys-era Jeff Lynne, provides the album's most immediately catchy moment, while "Remember The Mountain Bed" is its most achingly tender. Rounding out Vol. II are "I Was Born," a children's song with vocals by Natalie Merchant, and the humorous protest "Against The Law," sung by blues singer Corey Harris. A worthy successor to the original, MA2 is another inspired reminder of Guthrie's relevance. 'Til We Outnumber 'Em, which collects highlights from a recorded concert that ended a 1996 conference on Guthrie, features a lineup that illustrates his importance. Everyone from Guthrie protege Ramblin' Jack Elliott to Country Joe McDonald to Ani DiFranco (whose label put the album together) turns up to sing Guthrie numbers, and the relaxed setting brings out the best in both the performers and the songs. It's not surprising that two of the best moments belong to Bruce Springsteen, an obvious spiritual heir, or that one of those moments should arrive in the form of "Plane Wreck At Los Gatos (Deportee)," one of Guthrie's most heartbreaking songs. But it's especially unexpected to hear Springsteen doing "Riding In My Car," a nonsensical children's song he clearly loves. Interspersed with spoken-word contributions from Tim Robbins, Arlo Guthrie, Craig Werner, and others, 'Til We Outnumber 'Em takes its title from a Guthrie-penned fable of hopeless optimism that somehow seems less hopeless and more optimistic in the light of these persuasive testimonies.