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Published: 2012/07/11
by Ron Hart

Billy Bragg and Wilco
Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions

Nonesuch

In honor of Woody Guthrie’s centennial this year, Nonesuch has put together this beautiful update of the collaboration between England’s original folk punker Billy Bragg and Americana new wavers Wilco putting original music to unrecorded lyrics scratched on a variety of pulp matter by Woody that his daughter Nora had stockpiled in a trunk.

The pair of albums that were released from the sessions, one in 1998 and the other in 2000, were widely revered for showing a different side to Woody, one that indicated his love for California, Ingrid Bergman, UFOs, Joe DiMaggio and the snide suggestion of “Christ for President” while also notating his serious nature with darker, more political fare as “Blood of the Lamb” and “All You Fascists”. And together, Bragg and the Summerteeth line-up of Wilco each brought their A games to craft some of the best work of either act’s careers at the time, a belief that is only reprised upon listening to this beautifully compiled reissue, which brings together the first two volumes and tacks on a third disc comprised of tracks from the Bugeye Jim EP, bootlegged live material and stuff that wound up on Jeff Tweedy’s soundtrack to the 2002 Ethan Hawke film Chelsea Walls that gives the completeness to these Complete Sessions. However, if you are more a fan of the Wilco end of Mermaid Avenue than the Bragg side, you might be disappointed to learn that 10 of the 17 tracks contain the left-wing bard’s throaty growl on lead vocals, though Colorado reggae bluesman Corey Harris lends his voice to two tracks on Volume 3, namely “Tea Bag Blues”, a song that may have been written by Guthrie decades ago and recorded by this ensemble 14 years back but whose allusion to the derogatory term used by progressives and liberals to slag the mega-conservative Tea Party movement of the present day is eerily prophetic, even in a casual manner. And when you dig into the five cuts that feature Tweedy’s voice, the country waltz “When The Roses Bloom Again” and the telltale “The Jolly Banker” in particular, you wonder why such superior material didn’t make the cut the first and second times around.

The combination of Varnaline’s Anders Parker, My Morning Jacket frontman Yim Yames, Will Johnson of Centro-Matic and Tweedy’s former Uncle Tupelo partner Jay Farrar might have stepped up the whole game of digging up Guthrie’s unaccompanied lyrics and setting them to new music with their dark, brooding collaborative LP New Multitudes from earlier this year. But there’s still something about the chemistry between the way by which Billy Bragg and Wilco explored the duality of Woody as the family man and the street fighting man in their catchy, compelling arrangements that can still strike a chord with lovers of pure American music to this very day.

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