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Album Review: "Billy Bragg and Wilco"

Friday, June 30, 2000

-- Ed Masley

As worthy a sequel as "Godfather II," this 15-song collection finds the most consistent band in modern rock and Billy Bragg returning to the Woody Guthrie archives for another batch of unused lyrics, giving Guthrie's ghost a vital context here at the turn of a century the Dust Bowl legend helped define.

 
   

BILLY BRAGG & WILCO

Mermaid Avenue Vol. II (Elektra)

Critic's call: 31/2 stars

 
 

The weird thing is, on this one, Bragg comes out the rocker. On the nearly shockabilly stomp of "All You Fascists" and the brilliant, satirical "Meanest Man," you'd swear the man was doing all he could to find the common ground between Guthrie and Johnny Burnette -- and cutting through a mile of punk to get there.

Not that Wilco doesn't rock outside the context of a backing band for Mr. Bill. Jeff Tweedy takes a stray cat strut through barbed-wire tombstone blues on Guthrie's caustic "Feed of Man," his hardest rocking moment here. But Tweedy's more at home, apparently, on slower numbers lately. And the ballads here -- the understated charm of "Remember the Mountain Bed" to the bittersweet chill of the album-closing "Someday Some Morning Sometime" -- are alternately gorgeous and prettier still, if not as instantly infectious (with apologies to "Secret of the Sea") as "California Stars," a stunning highlight from the first time Bragg and Wilco set a stack of Guthrie words to music.

Natalie Merchant returns with giant voice in tow to guest on one song here, but sadly brings a little too much gravity to words I can only assume were meant for one of Guthrie's children's songs. The lyrics should have gone to Tweedy. After all, he made the most of the nursery rhyming nonsense at the heart of "Hoodoo Voodoo" last time out, his squeaky-voiced youthful exuberance just the ticket for turning what could have been throwaway lyrics into treasure.

Merchant's not the only vocal cameo on "Vol. II." Corey Harris sings "Aginst Th' Law," and while I'm sure it might sound perfect in a blues club after staring at the bottom of a six-pack full of empty bottles, here it just sounds out of place.

It only stands to reason that the cameos should feel a little forced.

It's not their baby.

Bragg and Tweedy know just what the lyrics need, from Tweedy's sugar-coated pop on "Secret of the Sea" to Bragg's rambunctious "All You Fascists." And their understanding of the Guthrie legacy brings to the project a sense of historical purpose in songs that on occasion sound as though they could have been the work of Guthrie's most important fan, Bob Dylan -- especially "Airline to Heaven," a folk-rocking opening cut that finds the usually clear-spoken Tweedy slurring away like Dylan with his mouth full. And they follow it up with a cut by Bragg that sounds a little like the Byrds, the band that took Bob Dylan's inspiration eight miles high.

So will the circle be unbroken? You tell me.



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