Billy Bragg and Wilco
Mermaid Avenue (Elektra)
It seemed almost too good to be true. The thought of a record featuring Billy Bragg and Wilco writing music for lost Woody Guthrie lyrics has kept me going for months, and with good reason. It's an ideal combination—Bragg, the Brit balladeer of unrequited love and organized labor, reflects Woody's grassroots populism, while alt-country standouts Wilco speak up for his giant influence on all that is American roots music. There are 15 tracks here, and not a misstep in the bunch. "California Stars" is a gentle twang ballad with Wilco's Jeff Tweedy on lead, "Walt Whitman's Niece" is a drunken call and response tribute to looking for a little nookie, while "Ingrid Bergman" sees Billy-cum-Woody daydreaming about the silver-screen beauty. The highlights are back-to-back tracks "One by One" and "Eisler on the Go," as Bragg and Tweedy take turns channeling Guthrie's voice as he lay dying in the Brooklyn State Hospital with haunting effect. The lyrics chosen by Bragg in conjunction with Woody's daughter Nora reflect the full spectrum of his lyricism—from silly children's songs to leftist sing-alongs and reflections on his own mortality, showing that there was a whole lot more to this artist than Hoovervilles and the Dust Bowl. This is neither a Bragg, Guthrie, nor Wilco record, but is instead a beautiful entity all it's own. Is it too early to call Mermaid Avenue my album of the year? I don't think so.