Wilco – Mermaid Avenue Vol. II (With Billy Bragg)

Mermaid Avenue Vol. II (With Billy Bragg) (2000)


1. Airline To Heaven 2. My Flying Saucer 3. Feed Of Man 4. Hot Rod Hotel 5. I Was Born 6. Secrets Of The Sea 7. Stetson Kennedy 8. Remember The Mountain Bed 9. Blood Of The Lamb 10. Against Th’ Law 11. All You Fascists 12. Joe DiMaggio Done It Again 13. Meanest Man 14. Black Wind Blowing 15. Someday Some Morning Sometime


I just read an interview with Jay Farrar in which he stated that Billy Bragg actually approached him first to get Son Volt to do the Mermaid Avenue project. Farrar waffled, and then Wilco swooped in a week later and the opportunity had passed. Man, I always figured that the fact that Tweedy got the job must have stung Farrar at least a little bit, since he was the one in Uncle Tupelo with the social conscience, with the stricter adherence to folk music tropes, and thus with the more obvious linearity to the tradition of Woody Guthrie. In essence, he’s a lot more similar to Billy Bragg than Tweedy is (which, come to think of it, might be why Bragg ended up going with Wilco after all). But man, I had no idea he was actually offered the chance to work on the project. If he’d accepted, would it have halted Tweedy’s rising star and allowed Farrar to reestablish his preeminence over his former bandmate? Perhaps, but we’ll never know. As is, Farrar’s failure to accept the offer stands as yet another episode in a series of indignities suffered at the hands of that damned Jeff Tweedy. At least next year, Jay’s doing his own version of Mermaid Avenue with a new batch of unused Guthrie lyrics and a supergroup comprised of him, Jim James, Will Johnson and Anders Parker of his side project Gob Iron, so we’ll at least get at least a glimpse of what an alternate history might have sounded like. But Mermaid Avenue is always going to be the famous one. Man, if I was Jay, I’d be the bitterest motherfucker ever. “When I get my hands on that asshole Tweedy, I’ll throttle him. Or maybe just mumble and walk away.”

Anyway, the second installment of this Co-Write a Song With Woody Guthrie-O-Matic project is comprised mostly of leftovers from the initial sessions. The album’s reheated nature becomes apparent by the end, so it gets the same grade as the first one, but for the first nine songs or so, I’d say Vol. II is clearly superior to the original. The mix is much more vibrant and interesting, for one, but the higher quality is mostly attributable to the extra effort put in by Wilco, who actually did go back and record a few new songs. Thus, their contributions represent a clear step forward from what they did the first time around. This contrasts with Bragg, whose tracks here are clearly just songs that weren’t good enough to make the first album. Some of them are just fine anyway, like the jaunty “My Flying Saucer,” the jazzily brooding “Hot Rod Hotel” and the cute Natalie Merchant-sung lullaby “I Was Born.” But his stockpile of material audibly wears thin on the album’s back half.

Wilco’s songs, on the other hand, are splendid. Not only do they reflect Tweedy and Bennett’s rapidly evolving songwriting chops, but also their savvy in picking which Guthrie lyrics to use. See, Bragg was so bent on getting Woody’s political ideals across that he stubbornly gravitated towards songs like “All You Fascists,” which 1) has about 12 words in the entire song and can be comprehensively summarized by the phrase, “fascists suck,” and 2) isn’t even an unheard song! Woody recorded it himself! Tweedy and Bennett, meanwhile, didn’t have an agenda in their selection process, so they just chose the lyrics they thought were best, no matter what they were about.

Like, for instance, the nine verse ballad “Remember The Mountain Bed,” which is absolutely breathtaking. We’re used to hearing about how Woody inspired Bob Dylan during Dylan’s “protest” phase, but “Mountain Bed” sounds like the entire basis for the jaw dropping, literary imagery and abstract storytelling style that Dylan would famously employ during his electric, pre-motorcycle crash period. Tweedy pairs the nature-centric tale with a gorgeously picked acoustic sequence, while Bennett’s piano and organ accompaniment, unlike on “Via Chicago,” enhance the arrangement rather than step all over it. The wide-eyed romantic sentiments of “Someday Some Morning Sometime” are as simple as “Mountain Bed” is verbose, but the band still recognizes their effectiveness and turn them into a pretty, gentle cloud break of a song, with lightly sizzling electronics that seem to make a first step toward Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. As far as I’m concerned, if you think it or “Secrets Of The Sea,” which is total Summerteeth pop, are heathenistic Against the Divine Laws of Folk Music (acoustic guitars and harmonicas only! Hey, what is that, a song with four chords? Cut that out!), you can shove it up your ass. The whole point of these things was to modernize the legacy of Woody Guthrie, right? Besides, you can still get your rootsy kicks to the barreling, uplifting skiffle “Airline To Heaven” or the electric blooze “Feed Of Man.” Rarely will you hear Tweedy get as worked up as he does on the latter; he begins spitting out lyrics with such speed and intensity by the end that I almost begin to forget about his alter ego, Mopey McGee.

Again, Bragg makes sure that there’s too much filler for Vol. II to improve, as a whole, too heavily over its predecessor. But the album boasts a few of the unequivocal best Wilco songs ever, which the first installment, outside of “California Stars,” couldn’t. Who needs Billy Bragg, anyway?

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