BILLY BRAGG: MERMAID AVENUE VOL. II (w. Wilco) (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 The Law; 11) All You Fascists; 12) Joe DiMaggio Done It Again; 13) Meanest Man; 14) Black Wind Blowing; 15) Someday Some Morning Sometime.
Okay, almost everyone says this one's not so good, and how could it be? Maybe the impressive success of the first volume was not enough to make them go back into the studio and record some more — but it was enough to make them release most of the stuff that did not make it onto Vol. I, and if these are outtakes, well, there must have been reasons for their being outtakes from the very beginning, right? Scraps are scraps, even if you're a giant of popular music.
Honestly, though, I do not share this popular opinion about the sequel being so seriously inferior. Maybe it is because I do not view the original Mermaid Avenue as a masterpiece — merely as a very pleasant, very insightful, very tasteful synthetic exercise — and without elevated expectations for the sequel, the sequel just comes across as yet another such exercise. In fact, one reason why these songs were discarded originally may have been not the lack of quality, but their being generally much more distant from the standards of «folk rock» than the songs on the first album: here, Billy and Jeff really go a long way, adapting Woody's words to so many different musical styles that poor Woody must have rolled over in his grave much more than once. They may have ditched some of this first time around just so as not to have Norah scratch her head and wonder whether the decision to entrust this stuff to a couple of modernist clowns was such a good idea in the first place. But second time around... there's just no stopping them.
See for yourself. ʽMy Flying Saucerʼ is a folk-pop song all right... in Buddy Holly, not Woody Guthrie style (starts out ʽPeggy Sueʼ style). ʽFeed Of Manʼ is a slide guitar-heavy swamp rocker that sounds like Rory Gallagher with Brian Jones on second guitar. ʽSecrets Of The Seaʼ is an indie pop song that is 100% Summerteeth-era Wilco. ʽAll You Fascistsʼ is speedy blues-rock with crazy guitar and harmonica romps that may have been inspired by Five Live Yardbirds. And weirdest of all is ʽMeanest Manʼ, a song with such strange lyrics that the only thing Bragg could do about it was turn it into a wannabe Tom Waits number... and sing it like Tom Waits, too. (Why didn't they try to get the real Tom Waits, I wonder? They got Natalie Merchant and Corey Harris as guest stars — Tom Waits would kick their limp folksy asses).
Most of the other songs, too, sound very much «appropriated» by either Tweedy or Bragg, to the extent that the album closer, ʽSomeday Some Morning Sometimeʼ, a gentle ballad with kaleidoscopic electronic overdubs, would seem like a natural predecessor to the futuristic «folktronic» soundscapes of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Most importantly, they use Woody's lyrics to create moods that go way beyond Woody's lyrics — yes, it is true that these lyrics show us a much more profound and diverse Guthrie than the Dust Bowl Poet stereotype, but these guys go further than that: ʽBlood Of The Lambʼ, for instance, is cast as a bitter, sarcastic cabaret vaudeville, where Tweedy's vocals take on an almost mocking air as he sings that "I've learnt to love my peoples / Of all colors, creeds and kinds / I'm all washed in the blood of that lamb". Was it supposed to be ironic? Maybe it was. Who the heck knows?
Or ʽMeanest Manʼ — okay, so Woody writes about all those evil things that he could have been, but he isn't because of the kindness of the people around him; is it right, then, to have the song delivered pirate-style, as if the protagonist were the meanest man? Or maybe he really is? Maybe this is just a tiny hint at the creepy dark side of the man?.. Oh God, perhaps Norah should have reconsidered, after all. Then again, if the original intent was to create a multi-dimensional portrait of a man equally beset by angels and demons on all sides, then this is exactly what Billy and Jeff are doing for us here. They may have largely invented this portrait, filling in all the blank spaces with bits of their own personalities (Billy the streetwise jester and Jeff the idealistic dreamer), but there probably was a little bit of each in the old Woody anyway, so no prob.
In any case, as far as the songwriting and the arrangements are concerned, half of these tunes are bona fide Billy Bragg tunes, the other half is first-to-second-rate Wilco, a must have for all fans of the classic Wilco sound, and as a special bonus you get another brief acoustic ditty tenderly sung by Natalie Merchant's faience shepherdess — shake it, but don't break it; it's a good thing, after all, that nobody tried to make a 10,000 Maniacs album out of this set of lyrics, «This Guitar Kills Politically Incorrect Male Chauvinists»-style. This one gets another safe, friendly thumbs up. And please note that, as of 2012, both are also available together as Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions, a sprawling boxset that adds yet a third bonus CD of even more stuff, which I have not heard so far, but I'm pretty sure that three's good company, and judging by Amazon prices, it's also quite a good bargain compared to buying all the stuff separately.