The Phantom Tollbooth
March 1999 Pick of the Month

Mermaid Avenue
Artist: Billy Bragg and Wilco perform lost songs of Woody Guthrie
Label: Elektra
Length: 15tracks/49:42 minutes
Probably best known these days as the mentor of the young Bob Dylan and for his influence on Bruce Springsteen, Woody Guthrie left behind a treasure trove of unrecorded material that his daughter Nora Guthrie recently entrusted to the creative hands of politico-singer/songwriter Billy Bragg and alternative country troubadours Wilco. The combination of Bragg's outspoken politics and Wilco's connection with the tradition of American folk music is a potent one that resonates well with Guthrie's tradition.
Like many socialists of his day, Woody Guthrie's songs suggest a certain dislike of institutionalized religion which had in many ways become a bed of conservatism. But for the alert listener, the many references to Jesus within the songs, particularly the social revolutionary side of Jesus' message, may well draw a certain intrigue. This comes through most clearly here on "Christ for President": Unfortunately, this song also gives rise to a few questions about Guthrie's strength as a lyricist, which also arises in other places on the album. While he was certainly above average and wrote many evocative and imaginative verses, there is sometimes a tendency to confuse concepts in a way that suggests that the lyrics could do with some editing. It does perhaps add a little charm, but is an unfortunate flaw. Those readers sensitive to such things will want to be aware that a number of the songs contain veiled sexual innuendos. They're generally artfully executed but worth being aware of.
Musically, this album is quite a gem. Given the collaborators it is obviously fairly sparse and rootsy, but there is also a range of instrumentation which adds a breadth of texture. Alongside Bragg and Wilco, Natalie Merchant adds some sterling vocal performances. She backs Bragg on the beautiful "Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key," accentuating its gentle lilt. Merchant also sings the lead vocals on such songs as "Birds and Ships," a stripped back number of absent love, where she is accompanied only by Bragg's finger-picked acoustic guitar.
By contrast "Hoodoo Voodoo," a mixture of images apparently written by Guthrie to entertain his children, is a catchy and upbeat number riding on an infectious organ riff, with Jeff Tweedy's screeched vocals being initially slightly grating but eventually equally infectious.
It is safe to say that the musicians have managed to meld the spirit of Guthrie's music with their own musical identities in a surprisingly cohesive way. As a tribute to Guthrie and as an album in its own right this is an excellent release.
By James Stewart (2/9/99)