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Mermaid Avenue- Volume 2

music reviewmusic reviewmusic review  out of 4 Music Review: Mermaid Avenue- Volume 2

Artist: Billy Bragg and Wilco
Genre: Rock/Pop
Release Date: May 2000

Review by LarryG
3 stars out of 4

The 1998 CD Mermaid Avenue was a remarkable gem. Billy Bragg & Wilco provied music for lyrics that Woody Guthrie wrote but never set to music. The great songs were respectful to Guthrie but the artists also gave them their own distinctive contemporary sound. While it's not the masterpiece the first Mermaid Avenue was, Mermaid Avenue ll isn't scraping the bottom of the barrel of unproduced Guthrie lyrics. Mermaid Avenue II is a solid, enjoyable work with a number of good Billy Bragg songs and quite a few great ones from Wilco.

Bragg shares Guthrie's passion for justice. His devotion to Guthrie's legacy made Mermaid Avenue happen. Still, it's Wilco, with their musical versatility and virtuosity and their very American sound, that best communicate the Guthrie lyrics on MA II. Wilco again show they're one of our best bands. Their advantage over Bragg comes largely from undeniable facts: Jeff Tweedy's voice has more range and depth than Bragg's and Bragg doesn't have Jay Bennett's genius for creating and executing compelling arrangements. On Wilco's last CD Summerteeth, Tweedy showed a new maturity in his singing and writing with sad, serious songs like She's A Jar, How To Fight Loneliness and Via Chicago. Remember the Mountain Bed is Mermaid Avenue II's centerpiece. With Tweedy's restrained vocal and minimal instrumentation, Guthrie's bittersweet, evocative remembrance of a pure romance experienced in nature is brilliant. With subtle, optimistic bells and Tweedy's unshowy vocal and acoustic guitar, Wilco make Guthrie's simple promise that someday he'll have a dream life with the object of his desire hopeful and moving. Besides those two beautiful, quiet gems, Wilco also contribute fun songs to MAII. Airline To Heaven creates a buoyant momentum with hand claps and the winning mix of Bennett's slide guitar and Tweedy's fluid acoustic guitar finger picking. Guthrie's lyric is a clear admonition to pray to the "Lord of the skies" to guarantee admission to heaven. However, a light musical mood, reminiscent of Mermaid Avenue's Hesitating Beauty, and Guthrie's shot at those preaching for bucks means that the song, while it has a bit of the mood of a revival meeting, never gets too preachy. Secret Of The Sea is a warm love song. Like on MA I's California Stars, imagery from nature creates an uplifting picture. With sitars, piano and guitars, Bennett creates the sunny musical mood of a good George Harrison song and Tweedy's amiable vocals comfortably fit in. Joe DiMaggio's Done It Again is silly fun with good bluegrass playing. You'd be less likely to expect a political song from Wilco than Billy Bragg but they do a good job on Feed Of Man. The sound is appropriately gritty for a song protesting bosses who would beat and bleed a man instead of properly feeding the man.

As on the first Mermaid Avenue, Bragg benefits from having a good rock band, Wilco, behind him. Bragg has fun pleading for a UFO's return, over a light rockabilly gallop, on My Flying Saucer. Bragg must have been in heaven when he found the lyric for All You Fascists, about rebelling against racism, which shows Guthrie shared Bragg's faith in the power of an energized left. Bennett's harmonica, Ken Coomer's driving beat and Tweedy and Bragg's guitars turn the song into a joyful stomp. Hot Rod Hotel has a suitably dingy sound, with Bennett creating a Kurt Weill style vibe with a farfisa organ. Bragg is a natural as the world weary night porter who's seen it all but finally draws the line on work that he won't do, walking away to an uncertain economic future but with a sense of dignity. Stetson Kennedy is the kind of politically conscious story of the little man that Bragg has recorded for nearly two decades but Bragg must admire Guthrie's light touch in the story of a humble man who, after his anti-war letter to the President is ignored, is inspired to a support a less mainstream candidate. Bragg's vocals don't have the same light touch which is disappointing since he was appealingly relaxed on Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key and She Came Along To Me from Mermaid Avenue l. You can admire Bragg for trying a Tom Waits style rant on Meanest Man but his singing is nearly unlistenable. Black Wind Blowing has the same humorless, earnest mood that was increasingly marring Bragg's work before Mermaid Avenue. His flat Cockney conversational singing doesn't give the lyric the soulful, spiritual edge it deserves. Part of the greatness of the Mermaid Avenue records is that they haven't just been worthy projects that deserve respect for bringing Guthrie's lyrics to light. They've simply been great works, regardless of their source. A few of the Bragg songs feel more like noble efforts.

Mermaid Avenue ll has more throwaways than the original. Natalie Merchant again sings a simple song with only Bragg's acoustic guitar backing her up. MA's Birds and Ships was a beautiful tale of a woman longing for her sailor sweetheart. MA II's I Was Born is a cute nursery rhyme that becomes too cutesy with repeated listenings. Aginst Th' Law has a very charming vocal by Corey Harris and banjo and mandolin by Bennett and Tweedy but Bragg's music for Guthrie's list of restrictions society puts on the less fortunate is extremely lightweight.

Mermaid Avenue ll is another very good opportunity to hear Woody Guthrie's vivid stories which show him to be adept as a romantic, a social observer and comedian. It's also a good setting for Billy Bragg, who so clearly relates to the lyrics and often thrives with them, and especially Wilco, who create such rich results from the strong material.

Review by JaredD
3½ stars out of 4

The boys are at it again, writing more music to more Woody Guthrie lyrics, and the product is better than good. The only true problem I have with it, is the startling lack of new music from Mr. Bragg. If you notice, his newest music dates back to '97. There was newer music on the first album. I personally long for a new release of Bragg originals. Many shot him down with William Bloke, but I'll talk about that in a seperate review. Although my favorite song was "My Flying Saucer," the best overall contribution was from Wilco, which is hard for me to say, because I don't particularly like Wilco. Still, Wilco standout contributions were "Secret of the Sea," "The Mountain Bed," and "Someday, Some Morning, Sometime." This is my plead Billy Bragg: Do something!!!



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