Billy Bragg & Wilco
Mermaid Avenue, Vol. I & II
The Music Box's #9 album for 2000
First Appeared at The Music Box, August 2000, Volume 7, #8
Written by John Metzger
It's not often that a sequel lives up to the standards set by its predecessor. It's rare in films, and even rarer in music. More often than not, sequels tend to revisit the same exact places in formulaic fashion, and when it comes to albums, they often include material that wasn't quite good enough to make the cut the first time around. Consequently, the result is usually less than stellar. Fortunately, Billy Bragg and Wilco threw the how-to book out the window when it came to creating Mermaid Avenue, Vol. II.
The first edition was a bit over-hyped and over-praised by critics across the country. Drawing largely from Woody Guthrie's lesser-known lusty and humorous side, the songs were delivered with a very standard alt-country approach. For Wilco, this was practically a step-back, especially since it fell between the experimentation of their sprawling Being There and phenomenal Summerteeth albums — and theirs were the best tracks on the disc. Billy Bragg's contributions just didn't seem to completely work as they just seemed too rigid. All criticisms aside, it was still a solid effort as far as tribute-type albums are concerned. After all, it spawned the yearning and hopeful California Stars, the snarling Christ for President, and the gently flowing Hesitating Beauty.
So what lay in store for the second act? Would it be more of the same? Fortunately not. Mermaid Avenue, Vol. II is everything the first set should have been — and more. Though the music for most of the songs was written prior to the initial collection, the current album has a looser, free-flowing feeling that perfectly suits Guthrie's socio-political lyrics. Bluesman Corey Harris soulfully swings on the country blues rant Against th' Law, Billy Bragg grinds his way through the churning rockabilly tune All You Fascists, and Natalie Merchant playfully delivers I Was Born with nursery-rhyme charm.
In addition, Mermaid Avenue Vol. II is a bit more experimental than its predecessor. Consequently, the musicians seem almost liberated from the constraining track of reverence upon which they had initially embarked. Wilco, of course, have already showcased their newfound love of studio experimentation on their own recordings, and on Mermaid Avenue, Vol. II, they continue folding in a myriad of styles and influences. The joyfully jubilant Secret of the Sea, which is also the first single, sounds like an outtake from Summerteeth. My, how far they've come! Even Bragg's tracks have a friskier mood of studio animation. He growls his way through Meanest Man, as the group turns it into a tune reminiscent of Tom Waits. Likewise, Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett combine their talents to embellish Someday Some Morning Sometime with drums, upright bass, acoustic guitar, bells, Wurlitzer, and Delayophone to create an airy and atmospheric ode to lost love.
The experimentation pervades Mermaid Avenue, Vol II, but when Bragg and Wilco turn to more traditional arrangements, it makes them all the more potent. The Dylan-esque folk song Remember the Mountain Bed rolls gently over an acoustic guitar strum as the rest of the band gradually joins the rising musical sunrise. Further, the election year call-to-arms Stetson Kennedy musically captures the futility of trying to elect a third-party candidate. Imagine what Guthrie would have thought of this year's candidates. In one sense it's chilling to read his words and realize how little things have changed. Fortunately, however, there are a few bright spots. With Guthrie's lyrics once again in the forefront, one can only hope it will inspire a whole new generation of songwriters to protest the many wrongs in the world. Of course, with bands like Wilco and Billy Bragg continuing to make not just great songs, but great albums — today isn't so bad either.
Mermaid Avenue, Vol. I - ½
Mermaid Avenue, Vol. II -
Mermaid Avenue, Vol. I is available from Barnes & Noble.
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Mermaid Avenue, Vol. II is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2000 The Music Box